James Wan has been around the horror film block for awhile now, delivering films that scare but leave little lasting impression. With The Conjuring, he finds his groove, and it registers high in the genre, something so ominous and visceral that it can only be compared to classics like The Exorcist and The Shining. And while it’s immediately the scariest movie in recent memory, it’s also the best film of the year so far, likely an instant classic.
But what makes a truly classic horror film? What has James Wan concocted here that works so universally?
Well, first-off, the scares feel real. This isn’t the CGI madness of World War Z; it’s the primal horror of the unseen, then the noises, the doors, the sudden movements, and finally the reveal, but still keeping the evil in the shadows, so a great deal is left to our spinning imaginations. These are practical effects; nothing here is lost in the gloss of computer-generation.
Secondly, it’s the staging, the build-up, the gives, the takes, and the ultimate surprises. It’s about the use of dialogue, or non-use. It’s about the brassy, jarring score, that eventually gives way to all-out Shining homage. It’s about the camera, the Kubrickian way it moves through the house, the timely POV’s, and the way, again, that what we fear is largely not shown. We are left scared, with the characters, mouths open, on the verge of tears, waiting for what happens next. And what happens next is literally as unpredictable as the horrifying final act of The Shining.
Of course, for a film to be great, it needs a universe to live in. And that’s why the excellent production design here is so pivotal. We’re transported to the 1970s, to Rhode Island, to this house (oh, how vulnerable we feel to be away from civilization and apart from our modern technology). The film is greatly nostalgic in two ways: one, the visual references to House on Haunted Hill, The Shining, The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, and Poltergeist are part of what makes the film so enjoyable; it’s a literal Super 8 of classic horror; and two, the eerie spaces and “artifacts of possession” breathe untold histories; it feels like we are only experiencing a small, sinister part of the spirits that must haunt the world around these characters.
The acting is also top-notch, so good that we hardly detect they’re acting. The film feels like reality, just with the Hollywood-style icing on the cake. Golden Globe and Oscar nominations are certainly a possibility for many production aspects of The Conjuring, and it certainly deserves the attention. This is what horror needs. This is really what Hollywood in general needs: heart to match the horror, story to match the action, and method to match the madness. You don’t need sexist torture porn to deliver chills, you need style, and damn does James Wan have style.