There are tons of film classes that exist trying to examine why a horror film is effective. Finding the right formula and then successfully tapping into it seems to be a mystery. The reason why is because the genre attempts to elict a negative reaction from its audience by playing on our primal fears but everyone's primal fears are different. I'm not sure whether The Conjuring, which is based on a true story, is a masterful story that appeals to almost everyone's primal fears or if it's just an expertly-crafted haunted house ride that scares the crap out of you; but either way it's fantastic.
The film tells the story of a family, led by Ron Livingson (Swingers, Office Space) and Lili Taylor (Ransom, High Fidelity) that moves into an old farm house and then gets harrassed by evil spirits until they employee the help of famed Demonologists, Lorraine and Ed Warren, who are played by Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air, Source Code) and Patrick Wilson (Watchmen, Insidious). When it comes to plot, don't expect anything new here; it's basically the exact same story you've seen in every haunted house tale since Amityville Horror (which the real life Warrens also investigated) and Poltergeist. But despite its lack of originality, this may be one of the best executed of those tales.
Director James Wan said in an interview that he was worried he had pigeon-holed himself as a gore whore after his first film, Saw, was such a massive success. People enjoyed the film but wrote him off as just another guy that needed buckets of blood to make us squirm. It was even easier to write him off when his follow-up was the awful revenge crime thriller Death Sentence with Kevin Bacon. When he made Insidious though, in 2010, he solidified how good of a horror filmmaker he is. He made a scary spook house flick that was low budget, no gore, PG-13 and was well crafted even though it fell off the rails in the last 15 minutes. I don't know if he can't walk away from the pay checks or if he generally has an affinity for the "frightened family by ghosts" movies but regardless I'm glad he did The Conjuring.
The problem with most movies like this is the first act is all creepy, suggestive set-up, then generally scary conflict in the middle, followed by a conclusion that tries to be so big and bold it ruins most of the film because it isn't scary and ends up looking silly. That's what happened with Insidious. With The Conjuring, however, it builds and builds and never ceases to be scary and doesn't lose its tone. I wouldn't say that the finale is the scariest part of the movie but it's still enough to make you lay in bed with the lights on afterward.
James Wan has made a movie that sets out such a supurbly thick atmosphere of macbre dread that when the loud, terrifying climax comes you're almost thrilled to have something break the tension. Will this scare everyone? Of course it won't, but what it will do is make those willing to sit in a darkened theater with lots of people who are willing to sit a little closer to the edge of their seats and watch a screen through slits in fingers leave the theater feeling like they had a really, really good time.
The Conjuring (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: A