I've asked this question before in my take of 'Insidious,' and I'll ask again: if James Wan is capable of something as wonderfully terrifying and spine-chillingly disturbing as 'The Conjuring,' then what is he doing wrong with everything else he touches. I'm thinking, in particular, of his recent sequel to 2011's haunted carnival thrill ride, which largely feels like a collection of excised ideas from the first movie. Now, he's signed on to direct the next 'Fast & Furious' installment, making me wonder if it will feature a spooky antique doll behind the wheel of a souped up muscle car. Will the gang rebuild a classic 1965 Pontiac GTO only to discover it's haunted by a malevolent spirit? Maybe, they move into a house already occupied by the ghost of a very spiteful mechanic.
The possibilities are endless, and I wonder if Wan can really pull off car chases that excite and thrill much in the same way he has set audiences' hearts racing and establishes scenes of dreadful terror as in this shocking sleeper hit of the summer. After the somewhat disappointing 'Insidious: Chapter 2,' it's reasonable to be skeptical of Wan's talents once more. Thankfully, we have something like 'The Conjuring' to placate any perceived grievances. The story of the Perron family's frightening ordeal with increasingly bloodcurdling paranormal activity in their newly purchased farmhouse is a sensational spectacle of old-school frights. If Wan fails to ever make anything as wildly entertaining and engaging as this, then this should proudly go down as his horror masterpiece.
From the opening credit sequence, where the film's bright-yellow title in a font style that feels like the 1970s occupies a big chunk of the screen, Wan makes it known he's returning to more traditional spooky delights and scare tactics. This makes him a classicist, of sorts, an advocate for the conventional approach of physical practical effects. It's the one thing I do admire and enjoy in his movies, and here, he clearly keeps to that as much possible, consenting to the fakery of CGI only if absolutely essential. The scene of the bed sheet flying off the clothesline and to a second floor window where a ghostly apparition suddenly appears would otherwise be impossible. Wan's venerable style is his steady command of the camera allowing viewers to take in the whole visible frame, utilizing standard angles and movements that linger on terrifying situations rather than having the editor splice things into an unintelligible mess.
Wan's camerawork is marvelously complemented by the somber and morose cinematography of John R. Leonetti, who fills the screen with dark menacing shadows from which hands and faces can unexpectedly peek through. From the moment Carolyn and Roger (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston, whose sympathetic performances are a significant part of the film's success) move into their Rhode Island farmhouse with their five daughters, the house feels dank, cold and unnatural. As cheerful and happy as the family may be in their new home away from the city, the inside exudes a foreboding tone, generating a fearful atmosphere that makes several cringe-inducing scenes all the more frightening. Adding to the visual is a sound design of eerie whispers and distant noises, making the film a spine-tingling experience that enraptures the senses.
The script, from brothers Chad and Carey Hayes ('House of Wax (2005),' 'The Reaping'), was based on a reported case of unexplained hauntings by Ed and Lorraine Warren, the same married team of paranormal investigators that also studied the house that inspired 'The Amityville Horror.' Like Taylor and Livingston, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga's performances provide an emotionally congenial weight to the proceedings while also imparting some background and answers to various questions, particularly why this house and why this family. The mention of Satanic worshipping witches that kill children is unnecessary and frankly, asinine, but it surprisingly works to the plot's benefit, serving an important aspect for the suspense and hurried pace of the conclusion.
Putting that braindead goofiness aside, James Wan's 'The Conjuring' still succeeds as an effective and disturbingly chilling horror picture that will have you fearing the dark and running to turn on all the lights in the house. Working with Leonetti's impressively haunting photography and preferring practical effects over CGI, the film harkens back to the atmospheric feel and spookiness of 'The Exorcist,' 'Poltergeist,' 'The Haunting,' 'The Innocents,' 'The Uninvited,' 'The Sentinel' and other such paranormal horror classics. Wan's terrifying chiller is what the original 'Amityville Horror' should have been or at least, how many horror-hounds remember it, except this is superior and very well-done.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
New Line Cinema and Warner Home Video bring 'The Conjuring' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with an UltraViolet Digital Copy. The Region Free, BD50 disc sits opposite a DVD-9 copy inside a blue, eco-cutout case with lenticular slipcover. After a couple skippable promos, the screen changes to a static picture of Lili Taylor with a generic set of menu options along the bottom of the screen.
'The Conjuring' makes its presence known on Blu-ray with a remarkable 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that will shock and scare the living daylights out of viewers. Filmed entirely with the use of HD cameras, the digital picture displays extraordinary definition in the interior of the house, exposing every crack and stain along the walls. Tiny flaws and blemishes in the woodworking of the molding, stairs and furniture in the background are as clear and distinct as everything else in the foreground. Fine lines and stitching in the groovy 70s clothing is highly-detailed while facial complexions show distinct, lifelike textures, especially in close-ups.
Presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the mostly squeaky-clean transfer also seems to be faithful to the intentions of cinematographer John R. Leonetti. Much of the photography looks dreary and somber thanks to subdued contrast levels, creating a sad and morose atmosphere, but whites remain bright and cleanly rendered. The color palette leans heavily towards brownish-amber earth tones, yet primaries appear accurate while the cast shows healthy skin tones. Blacks are for the most part true with excellent shadow details, but they still leave much to be desired, looking very murky and flat in several sequences. Overall, the high-def video is splendid with a great deal to admire.
The sleeper hit of the summer also arrives with a sensational and creepily terrifying DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that delivers a frightful experience. While dialogue comes through the center with excellent precision and clarity, conveying the panic and distress in the voices of actors with outstanding intonation, the other two channels evenly distribute a variety of ghostly sounds, moans and murmurs with convincing transparency and fidelity.
Dynamics and acoustics exhibit superb range, allowing the tiniest shard of fallen glass and creak of the wooden floor to come in as crystal-clear as the loudest bang and crash without losing any detail. This generates a marvelously broad and expansive soundstage where every noise through the house feels scarily convincing and discrete. The low-end is equally impressive, extending into the lower depths during several choice moments that send waves vibrating throughout the room. The bass brings an authoritative force and palpable weight that not only gives certain scenes a commanding presence but also rattles walls and shakes the couch with frightening potency.
Rear activity continues the scares with a creepy array of sounds, echoes, and spine-chilling whispers. With exceptional directionality and discrete clarity, the surrounds create an immersive soundfield that puts viewers in the middle of the terror and transforms the room into a hair-raising chamber of dread. Various mysterious noises move from one side of the room to the other with fluid, flawless movement, adding to the experience and making this lossless mix one of the best heard for a supernatural horror flick.
If James Wan fails to ever make another movie of significant note, then at least 'The Conjuring' can proudly go down as his horror masterpiece. Inspired by the paranormal investigations of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the story about a family's frightening ordeal with increasingly bloodcurdling paranormal activity delivers a sensational, spine-chilling experience with a splendidly macabre and spooky atmosphere. The film debuts on Blu-ray with deliberately stylish and somber picture quality and complemented by an immersive, demo-worthy audio presentation. It's a little light on supplements, but the overall package makes for a great addition to any horror-hound's collection of creepy supernatural movies. Highly recommended.