The year's most bone-chilling movie scene doesn't have a drop of blood in it. There are no zombies, witches, or demons. You don't really see anything at all.
The scene comes early in James Wan's The Conjuring, the Saw/Insidious director's new supernatural roller-coaster ride of a film, about infamous paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) and their craziest case. It's 1971, and the haunted house is located in Harrisville, Rhode Island, where Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn Perron (Lily Taylor), along with their four young daughters, have just moved in. Two of the girls, Nancy (Hayley MacFarland) and Christine (Joey King) share a bedroom. One night, something starts violently pulling at Christine's legs while she's sleeping. She wakes up, looks around the room, and sees something by the door. Abject terror takes over her body; her eyes are stuck open, her cheeks quivering. She's a deer in headlights. "Do you see it?" she asks, her voice barely audible beneath the fright. "It's looking right at us."
We never see what "it" is exactly, but it doesn't matter. As Wan stages it, the sequence is a brilliantly restrained piece of scary moviemaking, one that harkens back to the minimalist effectiveness of Robert Wise's less-is-more ghost house masterpiece The Haunting (1963). Instead of showing "it," Wan lets the sound design do his work, undercutting Christine's traumatizing episode with a heartbeat-like bassline that gets louder as the scene progresses, as if it were inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." Like Wise, Wan achieves maximum tension through the score and his actress' facial expressions. We know that she's petrified beyond belief, and we're comforted to know that the filmmaker is confident enough in his audience to allow them to supply the "it" with their imaginations.
It's classic horror moviemaking, and in today's found-footage-crazed, gory-remake-obsessed genre film industry, it's an anomaly. Yes, Wan does pack The Conjuring's raucous third act with plenty of action, money-shots, and "it" sights, but by that point he's earned the right to. As was the case in 2011's Insidious, in which Wan spent nearly an hour favoring subtlety and nightmarish ambiance before taking the figurative gloves off for the film's wild, anything-goes final third. By patiently enrapturing viewers with quiet scares, a macabre mood, and quick shocks, a filmmaker successfully brings audience members to the edge. That way, when shit hits the fan during a film's conclusion, they've already submitted. They've established residence in Wan's malevolent funhouse. They're completely on board with whatever kind of insanity he wants to unleash.
There's nobody currently working in Hollywood who can unleash the horrifying yet skillfully calculated fury quite like James Wan. Nor are there any other mainstream horror filmmakers as dedicated to telling good stories. The Conjuring's mayhem works so well because, by that point, the Perrons have earned our sympathy, a credit to screenwriter Chad and Corey Hayes' impressive work and the performances from Taylor, Livingston, and their younger counterparts. It's easy to root for the Warrens, who've charmed their ways into your sweet spot in different but equally endearing manners. As Wilson plays him, Ed's a warm-hearted rock. Through the ever-stellar Farmiga, Lorraine's a more fragile hero, one whose nobility is repeatedly tested by her clairvoyant ability to nestle up close and personal to the entities she's investigating. It's no wonder that esteemed film critics like Manhola Dargis and Andrew O'Hehir are so high on the film.
In The Conjuring, he spends the film's entire second half aggressively trying to give viewers heart palpitations. There's a fantastic set-piece that finds Carolyn investigating strange sounds in the house; her snooping takes her into the home's cobweb-infested, classically spooky old basement, where Wan mostly keeps the camera positioned behind her back, giving the viewer her same point-of-view. You're investigating the situation right alongside her, and when she tries to exit the basement, you're also getting smashed in the face once the door suddenly and fiercely slams shut. In most horror movies, as soon as Carolyn's close encounter with the undead kind is over, there'd be a scene in which she's pleading with someone to believe her, to not think she's hallucinating or losing her mind, but not in The Conjuring. Wan isn't content with supplying his audience with one big scare and then letting them breathe easily. No, he follows up Carolyn's bad experience with an even worse one, involving daughter Andrea (Shanley Caswell) and something terrorizing her from atop an aged piece of furniture.
Moments of that caliber in The Conjuring exemplify why James Wan is Hollywood's reigning champion of horror. Capitalizing on the maturation displayed in Insidious, the 36-year-old director really lets loose here, but he's always in control. He's also a horror fan's dream come true, an obvious die-hard lover of the genre who's able to elevate familiar tropes while simultaneously paying homage to his favorite movies. There's a bouncing ball, straight out of The Changeling (1980), for instance, much like how Insidious housed visual nods to movies like Carnival of Souls (1962) and The Sentinel (1977). Even in Wan's weakest horror film, Dead Silence (2007), there are a slew of nifty, well-shot cues, none of which feel gratuitous: the loud, echoing sounds of a dripping faucet, a wink at Mario Bava's Black Sabbath (1963); an underwater scene salutes Dario Argento's Inferno (1980). Without ever calling too much attention to what he's doing (in other words, he's an anti-Tarantino), Wan peppers his films with Easter eggs serious horror fans can appreciate. He wants the audience to revel in the genre's greatness along with him.
Nine years ago, Wan solidified his own place within the genre's history books with Saw, the independent shocker about a killer who never actually does any firsthand killing; rather, he gives degenerates the choice of either drawing their own blood or chickening out and dying as a result. In ridiculously elaborate traps. While a freaky-looking, suit-clad puppet looks on at them. Armed with good pal Leigh Whannell's intelligent script, Wan shot the $1.2 million Saw with reckless abandon, amplifying the action and visceral moments with erratic, Ritalin-ready camera cuts and charging the whole thing up with a propulsive score. No thanks to its six inferior sequels, Saw has been given an unfair reputation in recent years, deemed the grandaddy of all "torture porn" films, which is bullshit, since, for one, it's not "torture porn," and, two, it's more stylish, better directed, and more narratively shrewd than subsequent watch-people-get-brutalized-in-outlandish-ways films like Hostel (2005) and Captivity (2007).
Far from perfect, Saw is the work of a preternaturally gifted young filmmaker (Wan was only 27 at the time) who's discovering his strengths and weaknesses. It just so happens that his first feature went on to gross $103 million worldwide and spawn a game-changing movie franchise.
Dead Silence, on the other hand, isn't as easy to defend. But here's the thing—Wan's first official box office clunker (it cost $20 million and hardly squeaked out $22 mil in theatrical earnings) isn't as bad as the original reviews and seven years' worth of slander suggest. Yes, the cast is inadequate, from a pre-True Blood Ryan Kwanten exhibiting none of his Jason Stackhouse charms in a thankless, bland leading man role, to Donnie Wahlberg hamming it up as the "skeptical detective" character. Excuse the lame acting performances and at times hokey dialogue, though, and Dead Silence is gorgeously directed. Wan evokes the visual grandeur of Bava and Argento with colors that pop; behind those flashing, mesmerizing lights, he sets the action in vintage horror movie locales (namely, a rotting, ramshackle theater) that channel the atmospheric locations used by the revered British production company Hammer Films back in the '50s, '60s, and '70s.
Dead Silence is deeply flawed, yet there's a slick throwback to Suspiria and Peter Cushing's catalog thriving somewhere beneath its crummy veneer. The vision in Wan's mind couldn't fully materialize. Call it a missed opportunity with several redeeming qualities.
It all connected seven years later, however. In Insidious, Wan fulfilled all of the promise shown in Dead Silence. This time, he didn't have any Universal Pictures executives disrupting his process or diluting his vision. He and returning screenwriter Whannell were given the uninterrupted freedom to make the film they wanted to make. They used the opportunity to prove those "torture porn" squawkers and "Wan's a one-hit wonder" chatterboxes wrong once and for all. Insidious is home to some of the most mind-latching imagery a horror purist could ever hope for—that ghoulish witch whose sadistic grin is instant nightmare fuel, the medium performing a seance while wearing a gas mask, the living dead trapped in another dimension (known as The Further) and designed with all-Casper-white skin and frozen smiles that make them seem like they're on the verge of killing you with laughter.
Everything seen and heard in Insidious is engineered to leave the audience rattled. There's an earnestness to the film's emphasis on pants-wetting.
Just like Insidious, The Conjuring is a cinematic house of horrors that's carnival-like in its energy, ruthless in its desire to unnerve, and refined in its execution. Best of all, Wan pulled it all off while backed by another major studio (Warner Bros.), a la Dead Silence. Only now, having proven himself as a grandmaster of profitable scares with Insidious, Wan's earned the clout and respect necessary to make a studio picture on his own terms. He's crossed the threshold so many one-time indie sensation directors dream about every night before waking up for another soul-crushing day. And once the entire world gets a load of The Conjuring, he'll be ready to take a seat on Hollywood horror's throne, where he'll rest comfortably until Insidious Chapter II premieres in September. If that film's reassuring trailer is any indication, Wan's first-ever sequel (he didn't direct any of the Saw follow-ups) should, fingers crossed, add onto his current winning streak.
Then, he'll need a coronation ceremony attended by the likes of John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and Dario Argento. The late Mario Bava will be there, too, in spirit, asking his fellow attendees why Dead Silence gets hated on so much.
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Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Also check out more on James Wan on Complex TV's Nightmares below.