If there’s one horror movie in recent memory that got a scream out of me, it’s The Conjuring. No hard feelings either because director James Wan freakin’ EARNED that scream.
There’s a particular elegance to the way Wan delivers the scares here. If Saw and Dead Silence were rough drafts, then Insidious is him wickedly working out the kinks. By the time he gets to The Conjuring, he’s effectively achieved auteur status.
Take the opening sequence where he literally opens on the Annabelle doll’s haunted face. Already, it’s misdirection. Wan is priming us for the expectation that the doll will move or lurch forward or do the creepy head turn. (Turns out, he’s saving that for later.) We’re staring RIGHT AT Annabelle, so we’re waiting. What does he direct our attention to instead? Banging on the doors, writing on the walls, the doll sitting in the hallway holding a harmless piece of crayon. As creepy an object as she is, Annabelle ISN’T the scene. She’s the arbiter, and this makes her so much more threatening as something we never see “move,” but something we can easily picture for ourselves.
The only inanimate object that moves in that entire opening is the damn crayon. That bit of fright conjured by a red crayon rolling across the floor is essentially a miniature version of how Wan will scare us for the next 100 minutes, foreshadowing the many directions he’ll take (sometimes literally) in doing so.
Before things really go bump in the night for the Perron family, Wan begins building his visual vocabulary. As the Perrons move in, Wan and cinematographer John R. Leonetti pull double duty with this tracking shot, winding in and out of rooms on the first floor and establishing geography.
The next day, mother Carolyn plays hide-and-clap with her youngest daughter and we’re getting a sense of the second story’s layout too. Wan gets this out of the way because there’s anticipation in knowing how long characters will take to get from one room to another, to go from top floor to bottom.
The movement of the camera is our way into the house literally, but it is also The Conjuring’s most diabolical device.
Exhibit A. This shot here is James Wan at his most deceitful. Seconds earlier, Roger Perron fell asleep at his desk then begins searching around when he hears things. He comes down the hallway, the camera perfectly still at the entrance as Roger turns at the foot of the stairs, and the camera casually pans upward to reveal his eldest daughter Andrea at the top. No frights here, Andrea’s calling for her father because her sister Cindy is sleepwalking.
But Wan repeats this technique to ultra-terrifying results when Cindy sleepwalks again, banging her head on Andrea’s wardrobe. Andrea checks the dresser when the doors start banging on their own, and the camera again pans upward to reveal Bathsheba crouched above like a gargoyle. And all hell breaks loose.
Remember when I mentioned how I screamed? This scene got me and it got me GOOD. My soul literally left earth, and I’m not entirely sure all of me came back.
I love the tactic Wan uses with the camera. It’s a simple use of direction, or misdirection – a horror filmmaker’s greatest tool.
When the Warrens are brought in to investigate, they bring with them a skeptical local cop, Brad Hamilton. Ideally, he’s doomed to get a fright or two wherein he’ll fully become a believer. When Brad sees the ghost of a maid, she heads to the right of the frame, disappearing behind the wall and out of our sight. When Brad falls for it and walks right into the room, the maid comes screaming at him from the left.
The scares can come from anywhere in The Conjuring. From a pair of clapping hands behind, a grieving ghost of a mother right in front, or Bathsheba’s dangling feet above. And this is what makes The Conjuring such a malevolent force of a horror movie. It cleverly and effectively disorients the audience.
Wan has found a way to weaponize our anticipation against us. As audiences in horror movies, we are actively trying to predict what will happen or where the scare will come from in a foolhardy attempt to get out ahead— to “not get scared,” because some of us want to impress our dates in the theater, to appear masculine, and show how brave we are to withstand *checks notes* a jump scare.
It’s an odd but ultimately human instinct. (Gravely anticipating the scare, I mean, not the whole “puffing yourself up as a man” bullshit.) We on the other side of the screen don’t want to get scared as much as we know we’re the idiots who bought a ticket for this. We’re in survival mode; our guard is up even more so in a horror movie. And when the scare can come from anywhere, we’re in absolute free-fall.
Wan toys with everything else around the frame – or uses the full panoramic potential of the frame – making the movie and its scares feel bigger, which then makes the safe space of our seats feel like it’s shrinking. It’s so simple yet fiendish, but it is bottom-line cinematic.
It helps TREMENDOUSLY to have characters in your movie that provide a goddamn break or two from it all. Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston as Carolyn and Roger Perron are the ideal movie parents, their dynamic both charming and saccharine. The movie never threatens their marriage or the love for their children; it chips away at their foundation instead. They exude the all warmth and comfort you’d expect from a big and tight-knit family.
This is a lesson learned from Wan’s previous movies, where it’s not enough to craft a bleak atmosphere only to arrive at a hopeless end. Characters in horror movies can’t just be mindless screaming fodder. They need to be characters, too.
This is perhaps best exemplified through the Warrens. I don’t know that James Wan is a big believer in the paranormal, but I know for a fact that he’s a believer in paranormal investigators. In Insidious, the investigators provide the comic relief, a reprieve from the black-tar dread of the scenario. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson’s portrayal of the Warrens continues that thread while providing some genuine weight to their love and respect for each other. Lorraine is nurturing while Ed is stern; she’s thoughtful and subjective while he takes the more brazen and objective approach. They’re opposites that complement and complete the other. Farmiga and Wilson also happen to be pretty damn funny together.
We need these pockets of sunshine, these moments of levity where characters forget or allow us to forget we’re watching a horror movie. Because what happens to them ought to make The Exorcist’s Father Merrin tremble in his frocks.
The meanest moment in the movie for me is when Bathsheba torments sweet and innocent Judy, Ed and Lorraine’s daughter – a position that winds up cursing her. (It’s here that Annabelle finally does that creepy head turn we were expecting, by my we’re not ready for it.)
It’s a sequence that exposes the moral dubiousness of the Warrens’ haunted museum. They feel it’s best to keep these haunted trinkets in their hands for safeguarding. But it’s also in the same damn house where Ed and Lorraine leave Judy and her grandmother to themselves while they travel and investigate other cases. The deadbolt locks on the door barely provide an illusion of safety to things far beyond the control of their human hands.
So when Judy roams the darkened house and the cascade of lightning reveals that the museum door has been opened, the sight alone conjures the fright of a thousand Bathshebas sitting on a dresser. The shot of Judy bowing down from the enveloping darkness is Wan’s cruelest yet most masterful effect. Because he doesn’t need a performer dressed as a witch or a dead kid playing hide-and-clap. Wan takes a character who has no part in the story yet makes her lone moment of fright feel like the most tragic casualty.
And all he did was turn the lights off.
The ending exorcism in The Conjuring boasts all the forbidden terror and intensity of what an exorcism ought to feel like – a battle for one’s soul. But the more I watch The Conjuring, the less I care for an outright set-piece like that. For me, the magic of James Wan’s movie is the buildup, the tact of misdirection, and all the frightening work in between that accomplishes the resounding jolt of a payoff.
It’s how he uses all the tools of filmmaking to elicit this visceral response on our end that amazes and terrifies me. And yes I’ll say it, it’s downright artful how Wan and crew pull this off. That’s why I can’t get enough of The Conjuring as much as I might hesitate to start it. (For maximum effect, put on The Conjuring at 2:10am so that a certain tape during a certain scene set at 3:07am can REALLY freak you out.)
This Halloween weekend, join me in appreciating James Wan’s best movie—not just his best horror movie, but his best movie period.
But maybe let’s appreciate this one with the lights on.