The Seventies in all their horror-film glory, with special reverence paid to The Exorcist, are back (again). Better yet, what scared people in polyester is still perfectly scary now. Cherry-picking some of the best tropes from a golden era, director of The Conjuring James Wan, with screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes, combines the ambiance of horror’s leisure-suit heyday with the more recent brand of well-timed what’s-that-in-the-mirror scares.
Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) have just moved into a remote Rhode Island home with their brood of five daughters. So many young women under one roof immediately invokes its own mythology of sisterhood, but it’s not long before the corrupting devil infects their feminine paradise and threatens to destroy it. Luckily, demonologist power couple Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) are available and willing to come to the rescue. When the Perron girls start getting yanked out of their beds at night and Mom wakes up with bruises, they call in the Warrens to help restore normalcy to their lives.
Both Livingston and Wilson are affable and welcome presences on screen, but The Conjuring unquestionably belongs to its women. Of the ghost-hunting duo, Lorraine is an actual psychic able to communicate with the beyond—a useful talent in their line of work, but one that takes its toll. Similarly, the haunting malevolence in the house latches on to Carolyn almost exclusively and, through her, the children, leaving her husband largely out of the picture. Roger and Ed do what they can, but the men are mostly relegated to the observation deck, while the women prove to be far more empathetic and therefore appealing as souls for the demons to invade.
The Conjuring has just enough tongue-in-cheek visual elements—like the goofy yellow font introducing the film’s title and “true-story” origins, the ostentatious zooms, and the prevalence of high-waist jeans—to maintain an element of levity without undermining the film's frights. The period touches never distract from the deft storytelling, in which Wan juggles two separate families and their distinct wants, fears, and stakes. The Perrons and the Warrens find their lives colliding temporarily, but their plotlines are discrete. Ed and Lorraine are still dealing with the aftereffects of an exorcism gone wrong, and are weighing their desire to help people against their own self-preservation. The Perrons on the other hand are only just learning of a world beyond as they start fresh in a new town. As the thematic emphasis jockeys between their stories, multiple events often occur simultaneously, particularly toward the climax, giving the film a swift pace and a tension that primes the audience to jump.
Judging from The Conjuring and Insidious, Wan appears to be on an admirable mission as a director to reinvigorate horror’s arsenal of scares with storytelling that actually makes sense. What results is a tried-and-true call-and-response: the house sighs, the ghosts whisper and pop, and we yelp as if the spirit moved us.