The most memorable horror films scare us with what isn’t there. Varied approaches to scaring make for truly unsettling experiences because we can never predict, as an audience, when we’ll be terrified in a creepy, atmospheric scene. The Conjuring proves once again that a horror film can be terrifying without using blood and guts or cheap jump scares; it creates scenes around what we’re not seeing, and when it does reveal certain details and creepy characters, it pays off. The film doesn’t rely on scaring us with what demons or ghosts look like (although they certainly provide us with some horrifying looks in the film’s second half), but wants to develops its characters methodically and have the horror build around them. Even if it doesn’t come together fully, that intention is admirable.
The cast here is all-around terrific, with Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor really showcasing their talents. James Wan is slowly solidifying himself as one of the strongest horror directors working today. He had a string of interesting explorations of the genre that didn’t fully work, but he emerged with Insidious as a clear voice for scaring us without actually doing a whole lot in terms of reveals. Now, he has two horror films opening in the same year (Insidious Chapter Two opens September 13th), with his first showcasing his ability to implement long, observant takes that build tension and atmosphere. The development he puts forth in The Conjuring is slow but rewarding, giving us brief looks at what’s to come before the film goes fairly crazy in its final half hour.
That’s where the film falters, though. Its promises of delivering scares pay off, but it leads to a lot of nonsensical developments that feel woefully forced. There’s simply too much going on for the film to tie everything up neatly; it’s as if they dug themselves their own hole, realized they couldn’t get out of it, and miraculously emerged safely. There’s an inclusion of a creepy doll in the film’s opening moments that comes back later on but feels out of place for the narrative; the film starts to become defined by these red herrings. The movie still works because it promises what we always know: that the elements of a horror film never truly die or go away. And frankly, for the scares provided here and the love of the horror genre on display, it’ll go down as one of the more memorable, likable messes I’ve seen this year.
Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)