Directed and edited for maximum impact, this love-letter to early ’70s haunted house and ghost stories is too good to be true, and its impact is only slightly blunted by it being essentially just the finished version of Wan’s previous film, Insidious, itself only two-thirds of a complete offering. Like Insidious and all those earlier films The Conjuring mostly just studies (I’d love to say re-reads, but that would be unearned here), it emphasizes slow build-up over gore and let’s loose with a filmmaking bag of tricks so deliciously evil it’s hard not to stand up and applaud everything director James Wan does here. Except, we’re too busy being glued to our seat out of pure fear and white-knuckle tension to do anything except try to avert our eyes when we know, like a magnet, Wan is pulling us back. It’s not particularly subversive – there’s something vague going on about the self-destructive cosmic pull of the netherworld on those who peek into it, but it never goes anywhere. As a work of sheer craft, however, it’s almost undeniable.
The narrative isn’t particularly meaningful – little separates it from Insidious, except that it has a far more nuanced and textured treatment of it’s very feeling and very human poltergeist hunters, here very much not the plot points they were in Insidious (plot points who’s introduction also had the misfortune of signalling the exact moment where the film went from great to merely competent). This is a somewhat less campy film, more a classical ghost story like The Haunting, the kind that lived and breathed well until about The Exorcist, and then drowned out and flooded away with the great cinematic equalizer – the rising tide of the 1980s. It gave rise, of course, to a new, more populist, and more self-reflexive style of haunted house film, highlighted by the big budget Poltergeist (and, in marrying the ultimate in ’80s populism of Steven Spielberg with the ultimate in grimy, disquieting, nihilist horror with Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame, only to produce a work not nearly the equal of either of its creative forces’ talents, that film serves as an excellent textbook case for the incompatibility of the genres). The Conjuring is a more traditional film, more a straightforward horror that has a grin on its face not because it’s reflecting on how it’s all a bit silly but because it’s downright delighted it’s making us look behind ourselves when we walk home at night.
If the narrative isn’t notable, nor textually particularly interesting, the titanic filmmaking single-handedly saves the day. And I do mean titanic. Wan pulls out all the stops for this one: strange, foreboding, oppressive sound effects, distorted angles and mise-en-scene right out of the admittedly diluted American wing of German Expressionism, camera placement that’s just off-center and hints more than it shows, and above all, a graceful yet eerie camera that refuses, like the films main poltergeists, to stay still. It’s a whiplash film that lives and dies by the emotional tension within its audio-visual elements, most of all a camera that goes between ghostly-still and jubilantly cavorting around to find the best place to spook us. The absolute hellhole of the film’s sound design may be most damaging and destructive of all in its pure giddy joy at ravaging our senses – this is gates of hell, nails on a chalkboard material, all deranged and angry noises that don’t always exist in concert with the film’s visual editing and deliciously over-zealous camera, but even then they contradict each other pointedly rather than haphazardly. The film’s most effective scare, centered around clapping, works precisely because its sound and visuals are not in unison when we expect them to be.
In a sense, all of this captures the essence of horror – making the audience look one way, and then sounding off the other. Even when Wan goes for pure jump-scares, they are executed with the finesse of an auteur, timed perfectly and using shadow and cavernous physical and aural space to their advantage. This is genre craftsmanship at its finest, a pure form of soul-ravaging, black-hearted gallows lunacy. No modern horror effort is as in-love with classical chills and the pure editing and framing dynamics of making a horror film, save perhaps The Descent (a film with a much more subversive, nihilistic, grimy, heartbreaking bent to its horror in it’s updating of Rosemary’s Baby for modern times and making the deliriously sexual out to be deeply, perversely physical). It’s a gas.
Insidious is at once a proudly old-school chill-fest that thrives more on spooks than scares, and a slightly mocking exploration of the same form. All the pieces are all in place– a family (father Josh, mother Renai, sons Dalton and Foster, and baby Cali) moving into a house, ghosts being in said house, things going slightly spooky and vaguely supernatural with children doing weird things right before things most definitely get supernatural with the mother being dealt a blow by our friends on the other side, the family going “hmmm, there must be ghosts up in here”. But, I’m as shocked as any one to say, all of the most important pieces are those contributed by director James Wan. It wasn’t until The Conjuring two years later where Wan almost perfected his game, but Insidious was the first time he really played ball. Considering what came before it, no film in his canon is a greater surprise.
For history’s sake, let’s take a look back to the recent past of 2004. in this warring times of the early 2000s, Wan burst out onto the scene with a unremittingly tight, angrily constricted, dangerous and viciously clinical bare-bones hell of a premise hiding in the shell of a film that meanders and loses any sense of unholy urgency before its half-way point. I write, of course, about Saw, which took the gut-punch of its premise and diluted it through flashbacks and flashforwards and sidebacks and all other manner of “too much narrative” buzzkills. He followed with an apology film, Dead Silence, that sought a return to classic atmosphere-over-gore horror and mostly just spun in circles. Then there was the same-year release of Death Sentence, a gloomy, somber, overly-manipulative Kevin Bacon revenge-thriller deeply confused about its role in the world around it (I like to imagine it only existed to confuse people about which of the two DS films the director released that year was which). James Wan was, essentially, a hack of moderate ambition and a complete lack of logic. He was an shrug of a director.
And then Insidious has to go on trudging about around these parts of film land (haunted house stories being just about my favorite parts) to up-and prove me wrong about Wan entirely. In a sense, this film is exactly what Dead Silence wanted to be, but it’s far less self-serious and more aware of its own limits. If Wan has a field day filmically, especially in the more self-reflexive first two-thirds, there’s some bite to the film’s presentation as well. For instance, the film sets itself up as a cliché haunted house story, expects us to follow its beats, and then subverts them by having its characters actually move out of the haunted house when reasonable people, as opposed to movie characters, would. Since it’s a well known trope that movie characters will not move out of haunted houses even when any reasonable person would, Wan’s flip marks this as a non-movie world inhabited by living, breathing, realistic space. And then the film just puts on the biggest grin and has the second house they move into haunted as well (it’s actually not the house, but one of their sons).
That sort of cheeky double-play, where-by the film makes us go “oh look, the characters are actually intelligent and real here and know how to avoid danger” and then follows it with “but this is a movie world where movie logic, and not real world logic, goes, and the movie world is plainly out to get them no matter how intelligent they are, so strap in for the ride” subtly mocks the classic arch-complaint of horror, “dumb characters”. It says essentially “we’re going to do what we want because it’s a bit of a lark anyway, so shut up about common sense” in a surprisingly and boldly defiant and direct move from a director who’s most famous film completely faltered under the weight of its own convictions. While that film failed any semblance of confidence in its gnarly, simple premise, this one strides on by with aplomb and has a time doing it, at least until our old friend exposition walks in and spoils the fun. At that point the film loses its commitment and tries to explain everything. And we all know by now that explanations make horror much less fun indeed.