Director James Wan uses 1970s suspense to creep us out
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: Vera Farmiga as a paranormal investigator in “The Conjuring”; Rating: R Grade: A-
As a critic, there’s nothing better than to watch the evolution of someone in the filmmaking realm – be it a writer, director or star. But the real joy is seeing that person develop their craft after what you might consider a less than auspicious start. Of course, there’s occasionally a catch involved in such serious and careful tracking. Sometimes you have to be willing to admit that you were wrong about your earlier estimation of the performer.
That’s the position I find myself in with James Wan, who made a name for himself as the writer (story by) and director of the first installment in the “Saw” franchise. Wan seems to have been a bit of a horror maven – besides serving as producer for the series, he snagged another “story by” credit for part three before going on to write and direct “Dead Silence,” while also helming “Insidious” – but I caught up with him for a phone interview in 2007 around the release of “Death Sentence,” his homage to the Charles Bronson vigilante series “Death Wish.”
During that interview, I asked him how he felt about being associated with the “torture porn” brand, as a result of his connection with the “Saw” films and found him overly sensitive about the tag. He envisioned something “purer” in the shocks and thrills of the earlier episodes in the series, which I, for as much as I’ve come to appreciate the gory soap opera charms of Jigsaw’s manipulations, couldn’t quite see in the final result. So, in effect, I wrote him off a bit.
Yet, after the box office dead end he encountered with “Death Sentence,” Wan picked himself up and began making his way back to the roots of horror; a journey that had him inching closer and closer to the 1970s. “Insidious” is a story of possession, a family struggling to save their child from demonic forces. There’s no superhuman killing machine going after nubile teens or undead creatures intent on romancing segments of the audience. But Wan is more than willing to indulge in the heightened tricks of the trade that come as a result of modern technology.
The success of that film has guaranteed a sequel, but more importantly, it served as the template for Wan to dig even deeper into this blending of old school thrills grounded in suspense and characters we care about – and imperiled children – with just the right amount of contemporary effects to juice up our reactions.
“The Conjuring” presents two stories that will come crashing into each other. We get paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), an earnest team that seeks to either debunk the mysterious goings on that frighten their clients or help them to wage holy wars on the evil forces on the prowl. There’s a haunted otherworldly weariness in them, but an obvious desire to do the right thing, which drives them to follow up with Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), new rural homeowners with a gaggle of young daughters facing an escalating and seemingly incomprehensible evil in their new home.
The film works, spectacularly so, because we connect with these two very different couples. Wan allows us to choose who we want to identify with more – the heroes or the people in need of aid – and once that determination is made, he employs every single trick at his disposal perfectly. Think “The Exorcist” meets “Amityville Horror” with more substance than any of the teasing we get from the “Paranormal Activity” movies. Wan wants to save us from the conventional scares that have taken over horror – bastardizing it into “torture porn” exploitation – and he’s conjured up one helluva treat.
I have never been happier to be wrong about anything – or anyone – in my life.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com