Published Jul 18, 2013In structure, tone and even characterization, James Wan's follow-up to surprisingly effective supernatural haunted house chiller Insidious is almost a carbon copy. A happy family moves into a new home, only to have past misdeeds — theirs or those of others — come back to haunt them, primarily by creeping about the house and threatening their children in the middle of the night.
Both films reflect the style of simpler, more effectively eerie horror films of decades past — most noticeably The Changeling, in the case of The Conjuring — similarly reiterating traditionalist anxieties about religious ambivalence and the relationship with a less stable modern nuclear family.
It's a peculiar tactic, seeing as familial deconstructions and conservative fears, while wildly popular in the '80s and '90s, are vilified in a politically correct modern climate. However, what Wan seems unwittingly aware of is that the underlying morality associated, stemming from Judeo-Christian concepts, is as aggressive now as it was then. The context might have shifted, but the same hate exists, only within the context of ragingly insincere inclusion assertions and issue-involvement. As such, his play on gender politics in The Conjuring, suggesting that women have an intense connection to the spiritual world, holds up well despite being vaguely sexist and regressive.
After the Perron family — Carolyn (Lili Taylor), Roger (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters — move into an old estate they purchased at a bank auction, Carolyn wakes up every morning with various bruises. Daughter Christine (Joey King) feels someone tugging on her feet in the middle of the night, while Cindy (Mackenzie Foy) routinely sleepwalks into her older sister's room, banging her head off an old cabinet repetitively. Collectively, they notice an intense coldness in the house, along with a transient aroma of rotting meat and a tendency for the clocks to stop at 3:07 a.m. every night.
Of course, these events escalate to more aggressive and dire occurrences, especially after they uncover a boarded-up cellar filled with dusty furniture.
Before Carolyn seeks the aid of paranormal investigators Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson), there's a palpable sense of dread. Wan's handling of loud knocks in the night or match-lit explorations of small, unexplored rooms in the house, and even a blind-folded game of hide-and-go seek, are given careful consideration of tone and space, having a slow-building discomfort that results in a gradual escalation of fear and anxiety.
This makes the necessary expository diversions, such as Lorraine's verbalized research about a witch that killed her newborn, swore herself to the devil and promptly hung herself in the front yard, possess more of a disturbing effect than a cheesy one. In fact, many of the rules and back stories presented in The Conjuring are quite derivative, despite all leading back to female intuition and connectedness to a greater otherworldly power, but work quite well within the vocabulary of a film that creates a safe environment for embracing cheap, religious anxiety.
After Lorraine's visionary skills are detailed — she can see and feel spirits around the family, sometimes more than she can emotionally handle — the parallels are drawn clearly enough for us to know that Carolyn's bruises are likely connected to the many horror stories of suicide and brutality that came before them in their new home.
Even though the plot is predictable, the gradual descent from night-time scares to full-on acts of aggression, possession and bodies being thrown about like rag dolls is intelligently rendered, leaving the visceral experience of this simultaneously misogynist and feminist text to be genuinely, consistently frightening. Wan has dropped some of the misguided comic relief, although not all, unfortunately, and overly detailed explanation present in Insidious in favour of in-the-moment action and constant peril, honing the act of scaring an audience to an art.
The end result is a highly convincing and altogether effective horror film that's easily one of the scariest in recent memory and definitely the creepiest so far in 2013. That it's extremely well acted and culturally conscious is just a bonus. (Warner)