Even though we've all seen movies like it before, you're still unlikely to see many modern, studio horror movies as good as The Conjuring.
We all know horror movies about a family that moves into a big, old house with creaky wood floors. That's not really a problem, though. It's the familiarity with the formula that makes the latest film from James Wan stand out. You know what's coming. You know the hauntings are going to escalate in power. You know terrible things will happen when the father is away on work. You know some experts are going to come in to try to save the day. You know all this, and yet The Conjuring still works. And it works for one simple reason: James Wan is a horror master.
There are few other directors working these days who are as finely calibrated for their niches as Wan is with horror movies. Time and time again he's proven that he can show genre fans something new. That he can make any scene - hell, any object - a source of terror. He knows how to craft moments that you'll think about when you're walking down a dark corridor or when you're about to close your eyes at night. And The Conjuring proves he's not only flat out mastered how to make an effective horror movie, he's graduated to making movies that impress beyond their ability to scare.
The Conjuring is one of the most well-rounded studio movies hitting theaters this summer. Yes, more so than Man of Steel or World War Z or Iron Man 3 or any number of other megabudget movies that were surely more complicated to make than this. Ignoring budgets, though, like those films, this dabbles in territory that's been very popular in recent years, but unlike those movies, Wan's never takes a misstep. It never has a moment that feels out of place. Every element exists in a natural, harmonious state. And that's impressive because it's a reminder that spectacle doesn't always have to come from massive, impossible set pieces that look like they cost a ridiculous sum. Sometimes all you need are a few people in a house, an endearing story, and a director who can inspect a tired formula like it's a puzzle box and still find a new way to crack it open.
In this case, he does so by actually going back to classical horror staples. The Conjuring is a period piece about a haunting in the '70s, which alone makes it a nice change of pace for a studio horror movie, but the sensibilities here go beyond just setting the movie in the past. Wan uses lavish, elaborate production design to really sell the idea that this is a home. It never feels like an isolated series of rooms on a soundstage. It feels like a camera crew moved into an old house no one has been in for decades and set up shop.
And then there's the camera work, which is just lovely. Sure, that's not a word people often associate with a horror movie, but, again, that's why The Conjuring stands out. The cinematography here is both modern in its complexity (there's some really stellar sequences that show off the kind of gravity-defying fluidity of movement that wasn't possible back in the actual '70s) and yet traditional in the way it opts for long pushes, a wide scope, and an emphasis on how a space can always feel alive, even when it's as inanimate as a house. It's not really anything new, but it's the kind of combination that's so deceptively simple and yet evocative that you wonder why these sensibilities ever fell out of favor in the first place. In recent years you've had to go overseas (The Orphanage) or to the indie world (The House of the Devil) to see genre movies this good, so it's a delight to see a studio like Warner Bros. put some confidence in a horror movie that isn't afraid to let a moment linger.
Please don't take this beaming admiration for just how impressive a filmmaker Wan has become to be taken as a guarantee that this will be the scariest movie you'll ever see, though. A film's fear mileage always comes down to what you bring to the table. If stories of hauntings and possessions are your bag, this is aces across the board. Personally, horror stories of a Catholic nature don't really do it for me (I prefer the idea that ghosts and demons can't be controlled by faith), but even still I found myself invested in both families here (the afflicted and the experts that come to their rescue) and the way faith is used not as a shield, but as a tool.
It really is no wonder that Universal has hired James Wan to make its next Fast & Furious movie. Wan has great, bold things in him just waiting to be tapped. And I, for one, can't wait to see what he does when he steps fully out of the genre. As a hard-core horror fan I hope he doesn't stay away for long (we do already have Insidious 2 hitting this year, so that's something), but it would be a shame to confine his ever-improving talents to just horror movies.