THE CONJURING (2013, James Wan)
It’s been said that horror is the genre that most takes advantage of cinema’s unique properties as an art form. Because the composition of a film frame can dictate what you do and don’t see, because editing can stretch or contract time, and because soundtracks can heighten or diminish relevant audio, our senses are constantly manipulated by film — and as a result, we can easily be scared shitless.
The best horror films are those that use cinema’s bag of tricks to earn its scares (as opposed to, say, gore for gore’s sake or button-pushing torture for no purpose other than sadistic misanthropy — though some great horror films like THE DESCENT can be expertly crafted and still punishingly violent and sadistic), and thankfully THE CONJURING fits in that category. It isn’t a great story — it isn’t even an original story (despite its roots in a real-life incident) — but it’s goddam scary. Wan knows how to tease information and pace his terror — this isn’t a full-on assault (like THE DESCENT is, though again that film’s assault doesn’t hurt it much) nor is it a molasses-slow buildup like the disappointing features from Ti West; it’s a well-calibrated series of setpieces that don’t need to fall back on the shock-jolts, instead relying on creeping chills that slowly worm their way into your bones. (The hide-and-clap game in particular leads up to the single most terrifying shot in the picture).
I can do without all the religious hooey that seemingly must accompany good ol’ haunted house and possession movies. Like, why do we need the lame Catholic imagery, the goofy EXORCIST homages, and contrived backstories? Isn’t it scarier when the source of the possession is unknown? When shit is just evil for no reason? I’ll take more of the freaky ceramic doll, and less of the crosses and holy water. But whatever — this movie has a job to do and it is singularly focused on that task: scare the hell of of you, and by that metric, it’s a success.