Surprisingly enough for someone who helped launch the "torture porn" movement with the original Saw, Australian James Wan has become one of the most interesting directors working in modern horror cinema by deliberately returning to an earlier take on the genre: the traditional, "dark ride" film that eschews the ironies and meta-fictional, self-referential tricks that became all the rage in the 1990s. While The Conjuring seems at first a mere retread of Mr. Wan's previous Insidious in its "haunted house" structure, it's a superior film in no small part thanks to the tony cast assembles for this fact-based throwback to paranormal thrillers such as The Amityville Horror or Poltergeist (a film that was already a very obvious reference in Insidious).
Just as in the more spectacular but less controlled Insidious (or even his non-horror revenge thriller Death Sentence), Mr. Wan posits the otherworldly and the paranormal as challenges for a tight-knit nuclear family - here two families, actually: the working-class Perrons, who move into a rural suburbia house to find it haunted by a demonic presence and have to fight it as a family, and the Warrens, investigators of the paranormal whose balance of science and faith seems amplified by their strength as a unit. What the director does is play off the family as a unit at constant risk, threatened in their own sanctum, and let his cast drive the emotional throb of the film - a smart decision when you have the ever-excellent Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor toplining, respectively as Lorraine Warren and Carolyn Perron. It's genre filmmaking with an edge, rediscovering the power of acting and handling to generate mood and suspense, keeping visual effects and traditional scares to the essential minimum.
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor
Director: James Wan
Screenplay: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes
Cinematography: John R. Leonetti (colour, widescreen)
Music: Joseph Bishara
Designer: Julie Berghoff
Costumes: Kristin M. Burke
Editor: Kirk Morri
Producers: Tony de Rosa-Grund, Peter Safran, Rob Cowan (New Line Cinema, Safran Company, Evergreen Media Group)
USA, 2013, 112 minutes
Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room, September 10th 2013