July 19--Horror. Starring Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson. Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston. Directed by James Wan. (R. 112 minutes.)
James Wan, for better or worse, seemed destined to be known as "the guy who made 'Saw' " -- a film that ushered in the recent era of torture porn cinema.
Never mind that he's directed four movies since then. Never mind that in the hazy memory created by six diminishing sequels, people forget that the original "Saw" was a decent piece of filmmaking. (With less torture than you remember.) Wan was on track to endure a lifetime of sideways looks when he got introduced at parties.
If there's any fairness, he'll now be known as "the guy who made 'The Conjuring.' " The horror movie is artfully crafted from the first scares to the closing credits, with a bold retro vibe. But while its closest cousins are "The Exorcist" and the original "The Amityville Horror," Wan understands that modern audiences have short attention spans. The scares here begin in the pre-credits sequence, and barely let up until the end.
The throwback horror genre has been percolating for years in art houses -- most notably with talented young Ti West's "The House of the Devil" and "The Innkeepers." Although West prefers a minimalist approach with a slow build, Wan aims for a more epic style.
"The Conjuring" introduces us quickly to Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), demonologists who believe in the occult, but understand that most events are easily explained hoaxes. Next we meet the Perron family -- Carolyn, Roger and their five girls. With their 1970s clothing and sensibilities, the family is recognizable and realistic, with seasoned Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor in parental roles.
The Perrons have invested too much in an old house, which they gradually learn is haunted by spirits who mean to do them harm. They quickly hook up with the Warrens, who want evidence of the paranormal events before calling in an exorcist. The Perrons agree, after being told that these demons will follow them if they leave. The tale is tied together well -- at no point does the plot require anyone to make idiotic decisions in the name of narrative momentum.
Wan's boldest move is his reliance on practical effects, which enhance the 1972 setting. A storm of crows looks more like something from "The Birds" than a modern movie apocalypse. Demons are clearly played by made-up actors. The postproduction digital effects bill couldn't have topped the low six figures -- and yet nothing feels skimpy.
The weakness of "The Conjuring" is repetition. There are multiple sequences where a Perron lights the basement with matches, sleepwalks or investigates an armoire, and scenes start to blend together in the 112-minute run time. (The emotionally satisfying ending makes up for minor editing issues.)
Although the budget was likely modest, attention to detail is rich. The musical score sets a menacing tone and is also an effective tease, changing things up to avoid tipping off the audience. As action builds, the camera work seems to get a little shakier and rise to impossible angles, as if the demons are handling the cinematography as well.
The actors are all committed to Wan's vision, but Taylor stands out, giving everything to a complex and constantly shifting role. Writers Chad and Carey Hayes are also assets, resisting the horror movie urge to overexplain. They craft memorable scenes, but also include mystery, ensuring that new things will be discovered upon repeat viewings.
There are two kinds of people who won't like this film: those who hate all horror movies, and a less mature crowd not ready to experiment beyond the cheaper thrills of the "Paranormal Activity" or "Final Destination" templates. (That latter group doesn't trust mainstream movie reviews, so this glowing take should provide adequate warning.)
As the critic in charge of putting together this publication's summer movie preview, I barely considered "The Conjuring" worthy of mention. That was clearly a mistake. I'd be shocked if we see a better horror film in 2013.
Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle's pop culture critic. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @PeterHartlaub
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