Saturday, July 20, 2013

Strap Yourself In For The Conjuring's Relentless Thrill Ride

There's a scene in 2011's Insidious, where I instantly knew that I would at least give it some kind of credit, no matter what else it did.  It comes toward the middle of the film, where, in broad daylight, Rose Byrne goes to take out the trash and when she peers back into a window of her house, she sees a little ghost boy dancing to "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" in the living room.  It's a bizarre and delightful moment, one that makes you laugh so much that it circles back around to being creepy again.  Ultimately, the film has very little else that comes close to the madness of the ghost boy scene, but it does have a few scenes that exhibit director James Wan's knack for rollercoaster ride thrills.  I found myself thinking, "this movie kind of sucks, but James Wan is certainly onto something here."  Well folks, that something is The Conjuring, which takes all of the energy from Insidious and cuts out the silliness that plagued its limp third act.

People tend to groan when characters make "horror movie decisions" that seem illogical and only serve to drive the scares forward, but here Wan uses these to his advantage.  Where other horror movies try to put the audience directly in the action, he understands the idea of a ride, and throughout the film we're constantly being placed between the director and the characters, simultaneously strung along on rails, while also being implicated in the gear-spinning that makes the journey progress.  A door opens slightly, a floor creaks in the distance, and we want somebody to follow that yarn, knowing that there's trouble in store.  In that way, The Conjuring functions exactly as a haunted house should -- we're aware that there are strings being pulled, but we get wrapped up in the machinations nonetheless.  And if this movie is a roadside haunted house, then it's a well-built one, with every character and set dressing perfectly constructed to maximize scares.

This all works because James Wan is an excellent visual stylist, perhaps the best in mainstream horror right now.  There's such a command of the camera on display in The Conjuring.  Every framing decision and camera movement is so perfectly selected, pulling the audience along and keeping you on the edge of your seat.  While there are some complicated camera tricks (A dolly zoom!  Long steadicam takes!), the film keeps it simple when it comes to the visuals of the actual horror, and this straightforward approach is even more effective.  Wan leans heavily on jump scares, but what makes them work is that he isn't content leaving you with a cheap shock.  After the initial scare, he twists the knife and finds a way to stretch out and elevate the horror.

I don't watch many horror films; I can probably count on two hands how many I've seen in the last few years.  That's mostly because the mainstream horror world seems to be pretty dismal, relying on worn out tropes, dull characters, and messy stories.  My favorite director working in horror right now is Ti West, whose films skew far from the spectrum of mainstream, delivering the kind of old-school slow burn that we don't see much these days (it's no surprise, then, that many detractors label his films "boring").  His work, like The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, is best enjoyed alone, where you can really let the simmering mood seep into you.  On the other hand, I urge you to see The Conjuring in a packed theater.  James Wan has masterfully crafted a film that's designed to have a large audience be putty in his hands.  The Conjuring is less of a film than it is an experience, and its one that offers nonstop surprises and delights.

1 comment:

  1. I already told you some of this but I completely agree with you here.

    The Conjuring is the best horror movie I've seen in years.

    James Wan does amazing stuff with sound in this movie, the intensity is ridiculous and while the jump scares are plentiful throughout, the throwback to old school special effects and the people that were at risk made it refreshing.

    Far better than Mama and on par with Evil Dead (for completely different reasons on the latter) as the best horror movie to come out this year.