James Wan’s Insidious (2010) showed the Saw director (with regular screenwriter Leigh Whannell) branching out from the mayhem thriller to the more subtle domain of the ghost story, albeit a very pumped-up version, with many more shocks per half hour than classical iterations of that genre, and a real talent for suspense, misdirection and sudden scares in evidence.
Now Wan has partnered with different writers to give us, well, the same film, with a little 1970s period detail (although analogue tape decks are not fetishized here as much as in Berberian Sound Studio) and two parallel hauntings that kind of join forces in the middle.
As with Insidious, there is much to quibble about, but as with that film, it’s all mad fun, and so quibbling remains what it is. But how else can you fill a review, except by guaranteeing the audience will levitate from their seats with fright at least five times during the 111 minutes?
While Insidious had its own, not entirely convincing mythic backstory, laid out by funny parapsychologists, the story world of The Conjuring (nobody conjures anything in it, another quibble) is more openly religious. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t turn into a pure born-again Christian reactionary paranoid fantasy, like Eduardo Sanchez’s Lovely Molly a couple of years ago, but there’s still some discomfort from the uncritical presentation of religious crackpots as heroes. And in particular, the scenario’s drafting in of the Salem witch trials as backstory, with all the haunting caused by one evil witch, is tasteless and tacky. The movie wants its audience to have vaguely heard of Salem as some kind of thing, but not to be aware that the men and women tortured and killed were innocent. Wan wouldn’t, I hope, treat Auschwitz that way, so why should another historical tragedy be exploited and distorted?
Fortunately, this is a lone misstep, and the movie actually earns points for not being too nasty: there’s a lot of child endangerment and terror, but relatively little violence, and no exploitation of sexuality. The movie wants to be good-natured, which makes the Salem thing disturbing evidence of dumbness in high places. Wan is super-talented at delivering frissons and jumps, he just needs to take himself a bit more seriously.
On that note, it would be nice if the film had some kind of subtext. As the filmmakers evidently don’t have any particular conviction regarding the supernatural (which is part of what makes the movie so agreeably lightweight: you’ll scream, then go home and sleep like a baby), it would be nice if Wan’s movies could refer to something real outside themselves. Insidious, with its insistent and enervating burglar alarms, did at least call into play modern fears of domestic intrusion, but The Conjuring’s period setting robs it of even that.
Wan continues the upward movement in production values here, but the movie is bigger mainly in terms of cast: one of the great things about his previous movie was the relative conviction of the nice, everyday family. By bringing in Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor, along with an excellent troupe of juvenile performers (why so many daughters, though?), Wan builds on his evident gift of harnessing strong performances to the thrill ride.
Wan is young, successful, and having fun: he probably wasn’t even thinking of making a great film, but he should try. With a little attention to meaning, he could.
Watch a clip from The Conjuring: