When Saw was released in 2004 it heralded the arrival of two things: one was the beginning of a franchise that was, for better or worse, going to be a major flagship of the horror genre in the 2000s. The other was its director, James Wan.
Say what you want about the Saw sequels and their over-reliance on gore and its predilection for what commonly became known as “torture porn”, the first film marked the arrival of a new talent in genre filmmaking, both in its director, and writer/co-star Leigh Whannell. Both of whom went on to even greater things beyond; Wan is about to helm a DC Comics movie in the shape of Aquaman, while Whannell has won critical plaudits for his recent science fiction film Upgrade.
It’s sometimes hard to remember, given the law of diminishing returns that accompanied the many, many sequels to the original, but there was a level of ingenuity to the first Saw. It may have had a very limited budget, but it had a tightly constructed script that relied brilliantly on character, suspense and dark thrills, not to mention a superb cast that included Cary Elwes, Michael Emerson, Danny Glover and Tobin Bell, the latter becoming an iconic figure of the genre and the series as resident series antagonist Jigsaw.
Wan and Whannell reunited for Insidious, itself becoming a franchise and one that relied less on gory scares and more on atmosphere. In some respects, it would be an atmospheric companion piece to the Wan’s next film, one that would reunite him with Insidious star Patrick Wilson, and maybe even function as a wonderful double bill the film that would reunite them.
Like so many great horror films in the past, The Conjuring is knee-deep in being inspired by real-life events. With a script by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes, the film has as its central focus Ed and Lorraine Warren, a real-life couple who investigated paranormal activity for the Catholic Church and who are played wonderfully in the film by Wilson and Vera Farmiga.
During the course of the movie we are introduced to their lives and their work as they set off on their new assignment, a haunting at the home belonging to the Perron family (played by Ron Livingston and Lilli Taylor, the latter having prior experience of ghostly haunting having appeared in Jan De Bont’s 2000 remake of The Haunting).
While Saw and Insidious felt very new and modern – the former of course being one of the most copied series at the time for many direct-to-DVD and streaming productions – everything about The Conjuring feels old-fashioned, as if it’s walked in from the 1970s and given The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror a warm handshake and sat down with them for a nice cup of tea to wax lyrical about scaring audiences.
Of course, being set in the 70s helps too. It feels resolutely old-fashioned in the sense that it relies on atmosphere and is filled with great character actors, the likes of which might be a surprise to see in a genre film. Thinking back to the films of the 70s, it wasn’t uncommon; The Exorcist, after all, boasted the likes of Ellen Burstyn and Max Von Sydow; The Omen had Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, while its sequel starred William Holden; The Amytiville Horror starred James Brolin, Margot Kidder and Rod Steiger, and then there is The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrick, no less, and starring Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall.
In many respects, The Conjuring has become influential on the genre and how filmmakers and the Hollywood studio system approaches it. Wan has precedent with this. With Saw, its endless sequels overlooked everything else that made that first film great and just resorted to the endless torture and gore. The Conjuring, on the other hand, brought jump scares. Lots of them, to the extent that many horror films now rely on the same; from spin-offs of The Conjuring such as Annabelle and The Nun, to the wonderful recent adaptation of Stephen King’s IT, but it’s not a bad thing.
To rely on gore and repulsive special effects is lazy. To scare the audience with a good jump scare takes skill. One could easily argue that there are way too many jump scares in horror films nowadays to the point that it seems like that’s it all they can offer, at least there’s more imagination in that than simply watching a person tied to a chair being cut up.
The Conjuring feels like a wonderfully produced tribute to the films of a bygone era that have really helped make the genre wonderful and popular, relying on character, atmosphere, tone, and drama. Like The Exorcist, one could easily get the impression that its mixture of supernatural horror and characters of religious faith could set a precedent for something offensive. But like William Friedkin’s 1973 classic, it actually has a positive attitude towards religious faith and those within a religious organisation who actively use their status and belief as a means to fight supernatural forces of evil.
In fact, if it has any flaw, it’s that its reverence and respect for that film almost becomes too obvious in the final stretch when it uses an exorcism for its final onslaught of shocks. Wan handles the sequence very well and it is suitably intense, but the film had done such a great job already with its story and characters that owed a debt to something like The Amityville Horror that it almost seems too much for it to try and pay tribute to another famous part of the 70s cycle of horror cinema.
It’s a minor complaint because the film is still thunderously entertaining stuff. Best of all, Farmiga and Wilson are such lovely, charming company for the film that no matter how scary it gets, it sometimes feels as if they’re there to hold your hand and let you know it’s going to be okay in the end. Wonderfully respected actors they are too, what with Wilson having made his name of the stage and Farmiga coming from working with Scorsese and Jason Reitman, not to mention both having prior genre experience; Farmiga with Orphan and Wilson with Insidious, of course.
You genuinely believe in their relationship, their faith in each other and their religion. It would be so easy to mock religion, or use it as a means to invoke shock tactics within the narrative, but miraculously it doesn’t go for the obvious in that regard, nor does it even feel conservative in how it portrays the characters or their religious faith. It’s there as a key for them to do the work they do and that’s where it stays.
If anything, it sometimes feels almost like watching The X-Files, albeit with a bigger budget, set in the 70s. Given that Ed and Lorraine Warren are real and having investigated so much in the way of supernatural phenomena, the sky is the limit for what the franchise could do; and a franchise is what it has become.
While Warner Bros. has struggled to find favour with audiences and critics with their DC Cinematic Universe, and rival Universal failed right out of the gate with launching a Dark Universe centred around their own horror movie characters – a shame given that they’re some of the most famous monsters in pop cultural history – Warners has not only managed to turn Ed and Lorraine Warren’s investigations and battles with evil into an ongoing series with a sequel in 2016 and a third film in the works, but even the world building going around them has found itself at the centre of its own works.
There have been two Annabelle movies so far, centred around the creepy doll introduced in the early scenes of The Conjuring, and a film centred around The Nun who appeared in the second film in on its way this week. Like all horror movies, The Conjuring has been franchised but managed to go even beyond that into a wonderfully terrifying and creepy world that looks as if it’s not going away any time soon.