James Wan has been a director that has had his name etched into the minds of horror cinephiles for the previous decade with the first (and best) installment in the Saw franchise. Though Saw proved to be a strong and distinctive experiment in psychological torture and cinematic focus, Wan’s succeeding work did not reflect the sharp and refined directing skill Wan gave audiences in 2004. His film Dead Silence has an intriguing possible premise, but ends up being tired, overtly stretched and coupled with generally poor performances, it ranks low (if at all) on any to-watch horror list. In 2007, he delivered Death Sentence, a formula thriller with a very Wan-esque direction and shooting style. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t exemplary either. It does not help the fact that the strongest performance is boasted by Kevin Bacon, because ever since seeing him in Friday the Thirteenth (which is one of the worst acted horror films) and Footloose, that he is personally convincing as a very bland and poor actor. Death Sentence was a nice change of pace for the guy, but it wasn’t special.
Then Wan released Insidious. Generally, the films didn’t strike any personal note of interest, nor is it a strong work, though performances by both Patrick Wilson and Barbara Hershey were enough to sustain interest through the film. Personally, the plans set to produce a sequel to this film is beyond understanding (other than the major studio system again proving that they’ve begun to fall quite out of touch with the modern horror audience) it still was made with an old school rustic that was brought alive in Hammer’s 2012 feature The Woman in Black, with Daniel Radcliffe (who actually is quite believable in the role).
Now what are we greeted to this year but Wan again teaming up with Patrick Wilson to create another ghost story. Considering his two previous attempts were lukewarm at best, there wasn’t much in the way of personal optimism or enthusiasm when approaching The Conjuring. Based off the plot summary it was another in a long line of disappointments in recent exorcism films (notably The Devil Inside, The Last Exorcism I & II and The Rite), which much of the genre being completely covered or the most covered angles redone to a point of absurdity. Though this film also boasts its ‘true story’ roots, skepticism on how the material was to be handled was heavy and unrelenting.
However, after watching the film, the entire experience has removed all previous hesitations in not only a new way to tell an old story, but adding new confidence in the skill and prowess of James Wan’s direction. The Conjuring is another in the line of an approaching ‘old school’ rebirth in horror films. Final Destination (2000) opened the door to fear by physical violence, thusly triggering the next generation in horror films. Though violence had been a staple of horror films since their very inception, the 1990s were the rebirth and reimagining of the 1980s slasher films with appeal to a mass audience (brought on mostly by Scream and I Know What You did Last Summer), though it was never torture that was the primary source of discomfort in these films. The darker, more grotesque films of the era (such as Candyman and Hellraiser) were shunted to the side, though they all bore the same fundamental element to their stories. Saw (2004) brought on the true wave of what would be dubbed ‘torture porn’ by heavy critics, which has flooded the American and even the international market with films using the fear of physical violence inherent in humans and exposing it to the most extreme images.
Though, of course films throughout the genre’s history can boast the same element of gore and torture elements (just look at Hardgore), this is when the public began eating it up. And this is when it became clear that the studio system had the upper hand in horror films. And the more history is combed, the more it becomes evident that ever since the mid-1990s, studios have dominated the production and release of horror films. With the release of Cloverfield (2008) the found-footage craze, which is usually credited beginning in America with The Blair Witch Project in 1999 (though the first found-footage film was Ruggero Deodato’s infamous 1980 feature Cannibal Holocaust), the style of mood and pacing was lost on shock value, gore and cheap ways to show off expensive effects (Cloverfield was horribly made, though acting and writing were very strong). Though certain films in recent memory have been great additions to the subgenre (V/H/S, The Bay and The Poughkeepsie Tapes), the idea of ‘found-footage’ is not a strong enough gimmick to support itself. With the gore-heavy films, there are always going to be endurance-seeking fans who want to test their power to see the most horrible material imaginable (case-in-point those who have watched A Serbian Film more than once).
So though in the public eye, torture porn films and found-footage films are coming more out of fashion with the mass market, the studios are still churning them out with increasing regularity, adding less on each release.
However, as we approach the middle of the century’s second decade, a new era truly seems to be grasping horror films. With impending releases of Adam Wingard’s You're Next (which should be seen), Renny Harlin’s Devil's Pass (which should be seen with a grain of salt, maybe), I Spit on Your Grave II (why does this exist?) The Human Centipede III (great, more rim torture porn) and a third installment in the Jeeper's Creepers films (ten years after the previous one), there are a lot of tired audiences of these tired movies.
James Wan seems to understand the current state horror films are currently lagging in a sea of impending remakes, series reboots (including Wan’s own Saw) and new sequels, something new but strikingly familiar needs to breech the screen.
The Conjuring follows in the footsteps of The Woman in Black as a new return to the old gothic and hauntingly moody horror which graced many installments back in the 1970s, which inadvertently make the decade a golden age for character-driven, well-directed horror films (which boasts both The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby). The story is simple and well-contained, adding just enough extra meat on its bones to sate the hunger for each brand of fan. The writing (though for the skeptic can cause quite the groan now and again) doesn’t preach, and relays the information in a direct and very relatable way. The characters are not stupid, overtly stubborn, or caricatures, making empathy much more accessible while watching. And as the lines are rarely forced or faulty in the reason they are there, each actor delivers their performances with solid conviction and understanding of the material.
The writers’ (Chad and Carey Hayes) previous work had been simmering results rather than full-boil tension. Though if one had to pick, their only truly good credits before this film are The Reaping and First Daughter (the good one in 1999 with Mariel Hemingway), with the remainder of their work not proving much about them as a writing pair (though the House of Wax remake was appalling).
As with Wan’s previous works (most comparably Saw), the cinematography is very sweeping and grandiose, imitating what may be seen in Silent Hill and Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death. Wan’s use of angles and well-paced editing brings the knife down between the ribs every time he wants an audience to jump or stay steadfast on their seats. John R. Leonetti shot the film, whose extensive career in cinematography beginning on films such as Child's Play III and Tales from the Crypt gave him the understanding and experience to pull of an effective scary atmosphere. With the timing and understanding of Wan and the photographic eye of Leonetti, the pacing in the editing had to be flawless.
Only two genres require spot-on timing in the editing to be completely successful. There can be a romance with off timing to its climaxes and act changes, however it can be written off as an esthetic choice. Editing in comedy and horror are pinnacle for either punch-lines or scares need to be delivered. Kirk Morri gained personal attention with the final unrated cut of Martin Weisz’s The Hills Have Eyes II and Frank Cappello’s He Was a Quiet Man (which actually boasts one of the only good performances by Christian Slater). This man can edit; and he was an excellent choice for this film. With such an array of angles to toy with within this one location, the editing needed to be just as fluid and carry the film.
Overall the film was very strong in its execution, mood, color, acting, writing, editing and directing (helped along by a stellar original score by composer Joseph Bishara) that continues to put a further sense of hope that the genre can have a wide reinvigoration in movies from a mood and substance point of view. Dario Argento, Pascal Laugier, J.A. Bayona, Nobuhiko Obayashi, David Cronenberg and Brad Anderson are all great filmmakers to look into when confronting the issue of conveying mood in a way that can really get under the skin of an audience. And if he continues on this path of redefining the gothic ghost story, Wan may just make it onto that list as one of those filmmakers who have reset the bar of quality rather than just simply change the content and its associated intensity.