But it's Wan's latest film, true tale possession pic The Conjuring, that showcases the full spectrum of his talents; so much so that the young Australian filmmaker's name is now firmly etched in the horror lexicon. It appears Saw was merely a means to an end. Insidious was a training ground. The Conjuring is Wan at his finest, and perhaps modern horror at its best.
Since the 1960s, Ed and Lorraine Warren have been known as the world's most renowned paranormal investigators. Lorraine is a gifted clairvoyant, while Ed is the only non-ordained Demonologist recognized by the Catholic church. Out of the thousands of cases throughout their controversial careers, there is one case so malevolent, they've kept it locked away until now.
The Conjuring follows the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) to Rhode Island in 1971 at the request of Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor), devoted wife to hard-working husband Roger (Ron Livingston) and desperate mother to five terrified daughters (Shanley Caswell, Kyla Deaver, Mackenzie Foy, Joey King and Hayley McFarland). It seems the Perrons have been plagued by a series of increasingly unsettling and potentially dangerous supernatural encounters since moving into their new home; an old farmhouse in rural Harrisville. Determined to help the Perrons, Ed and Lorraine accept the case but soon discover the otherworldly entities haunting the farmhouse and its grounds aren't about to let go or move on. At least not without the Perrons paying a terrible price...
Wan doesn't simply set The Conjuring in 1971, he draws heavily upon the style, technique and production design of early '70s cinema. The illusion of Wan's meticulously conceived period piece doesn't call attention to itself but rather evokes films of the era to immersive, if not absorbing ends. Shadows spread like fire. A hush settles over the Perrons' farmhouse. Visions of sinister forces bleed into reality. The unseen is celebrated while cheap tricks and tiresome gore are admonished. Simplicity reigns, and what a spine-chilling simplicity it is. It's much too easy to get lost in the stillness and ambience of it all, making the scares that much more startling and disturbing imagery that much more jarring. With little more than a white bed sheet and a dusty wooden chair, Wan stages one of the most unnerving and unforgettable possessions in horror movie history; a scene that could have drawn laughs if it weren't for the inch-by-inch suspense and impeccable pacing the director uses for the first hour and a half of the film to make the Perrons' terror so convincing and palpable.
The performances are exceptional too, with Wilson and Farmiga infusing the Warrens with a matter-of-fact ease and humility that renders Ed and Lorraine a lovely, altogether personable couple... that just so happens to have some very unique gifts. Moreover, without needless exposition or dreary backstory weighing either actor down, Wilson and Farmiga are able to craft complex leads that, at first glance, aren't all that complex. Just beneath the surface, though, stirs the souls of two people who face ungodly horrors and have to go to sleep at night knowing exactly what the next day might hold. Then there's Taylor and Livingston, who sell the Perrons' confusion and despondency perfectly, not to mention the five young actresses playing their daughters, who aren't precocious or irritating in the least. Wan and screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes avoid pushing or pulling to either extreme, granting the Perron brood ample opportunity to go about their scenes as normal, everyday little girls. Nothing more. Paired with the creepy Harrisville house and its haunts, the cast and their eerie stomping grounds are as subdued as the progression towards each scare, and only the Warrens' extended team -- used primarily for tension relief and working stiff reaction shots -- fail to make much of an impression.
If The Conjuring stumbles it's with regards to its rather dry opening (starring a demon doll you just know is going to turn its unholy head later in the film) and a somewhat unnecessary subplot involving the Warrens' daughter, Judy (Sterling Jerins), who's tucked safely in bed at home under the watchful eye of a caretaker while her parents are away. Three guesses as to why she's on hand in a story about the Perron case. And of course there will be those who don't find The Conjuring frightening at all. Like comedy, horror affects everyone in different ways. I burrowed deeper and deeper into my seat; knuckles white, eyes wide, the hair on my neck icicles. Others will shrug their shoulders; wondering what all the fuss is about. The only way to know how you'll react, though, is to pop in The Conjuring, turn out the lights, and follow the Warrens and the Perrons to hell and, hopefully, back again.
The Conjuring delivers its thrills and chills in the style of a 1970s horror classic; a carefully crafted illusion born from Arri Alexa HD cameras, eerily effective digital photography, and the minds of Wan and cinematographer John R. Leonetti. And Warner's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer follows suit. The film's beautifully dilapidated palette is perfectly faithful to its filmmakers' intentions, complete with naturally saturated, lifelike skintones (pale as most everyone becomes over the course of the haunting) and the occasional spatter of all too startling red. The Conjuring's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track does everything a top tier horror mix should, slowly and fiendishly ratcheting up the film's tension, atmosphere, ambience and suspense until it all at once lunges from the shadows. LFE output is restrained overall but explosive when called upon, lending weight and presence to the unseen evil haunting the Perrons' farmhouse. Likewise, the rear speakers take the time to create a wholly enveloping, utterly immersive, disquietingly hushed sound field that erupts with activity at a moment's notice.
- A Life in Demonology: Director James Wan and other participants (among them Lorraine Warren and audio recordings of the late Ed Warren) provide an overview of the lives, faith, research and investigative career of the Warrens. The featurette also explores the Warrens' personal collection of the haunted, cursed or ritualistic items they've acquired during various cases over the years, and touches on the development of the film.
- The Conjuring: Face-to-Face with Terror: "Logic tells you that something is immaterial cannot really hurt you. I still feel threatened... I feel threatened." Roger, Carolyn, Nancy, Andrea, April, Cindy and Christine Perron recall the strange supernatural events that began when they moved into the infamous farmhouse depicted in the film. Lorraine Warren shares her own memories of the house, its ghostly inhabitants, and her time with the Perrons.
- Scaring the '@$*%' Out of You: The art of scaring audiences, the inspiration for The Conjuring, and Wan's command of the tone, atmosphere, suspense, sounds and rhythm of horror.