James Wan has a pretty good track record. At this point, it’s probably his style that dominates modern horror, whether it’s the gritty physical peril of the Saw movies or the Old, Dark House style that Paranormal Activity brought back into vogue but which he appropriated (with the help of Paranormal producer Jason Blum) for the Insidious and, now, The Conjuring series. He hasn’t really done the more graphic, physical peril type of movies since the first Saw, interestingly enough, but he is remarkably consistent as a director of the spooky genre. This is not a small thing, as seen in the Paranormal Activity sequels and things like Sinister (which had a decent premise and fine actors). Spooky is hard.
The first movie added a nice element we don’t usually see in this genre. Typically, the victims of the ODH (old dark house) are some unsuspecting rubes who don’t own so much as a PKE meter (forget about a fully-charged, if unlicensed, proton pack). And, typically, they find their relationship stressed by this paranormal paramarital activity. The Conjuring is centered around Ed and Lorraine Warren, and their concern for each other when dealing with the forces of evility, and this raises the movie to a more heroic plane by giving us the characters’ long-standing concern for each other—that moment where they say they’re not going to do this, and then of course, they have to do it because somebody’s life and/or soul is at stake.
It’s nice. Real? Well, that’s also rather cleverly handled. The Warrens were involved with the Amityville Horror, which had been “discredited” by the time this incident, known as the Enfield Haunting came up. The whole
“paranormal investigation” field is a cottage industry, as we all know, and full of fakes and charlatans. What we don’t hear about much is the “skeptic industry” which is at least as full, and which (wrongly) assumes the mantle of “science” probably more than ghost hunters do. Skepticism is not a scientific attitude: It’s a disposition to not believe in things that don’t already confirm your biases. To be a scientist, you must look at things as they are, which really permits neither of gullibility nor skepticism. That includes those things called “ghosts”, “UFO”s or whatever, like it or not.
That said, skeptics do a really good job of saying “This is discredited! By me! Because I found someone to say it’s not true!” and I wasn’t especially looking forward to a treatment of Amityville, which is how the movie opens. But it is just the opener, and the movie connects the Big Bad at Amityville to the one in England. And in the Enfield incident, we’re treated to a (no spoilers) very convincing discrediting of the Enfield Haunting. And it does occur to one that, were there demonic forces operating among us, it would be a trivial matter for them to contrive ways to discredit incidents that might attract attention. “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled”, and all that.
I’m not saying that it’s not all bunk. I’m just saying the word of people who want to be fooled isn’t worth much. Either way.
Anyway, the Enfield case involves the Hodgsons, a mom (the ever lovely Frances O’ Connor) of a mess of kids whose (naturally spacious and architecturally gorgeous) house is falling apart at a slightly faster rate than the rest of her family, at least when the proceedings start. The problem comes, as it almost always with a young girl, or in this case, two young girls using a crudely fashioned Ouija board. This attracts a sinister boogen who seems to be the previous owner of the house, an angry old man who died alone and hasn’t realized it’s not really his house any more.
Of course, it escalates, and it’s rather nice that the movie doesn’t do the whole “is it? or isn’t it?” thing, with paranormal activity happening all over the place in front of witnesses. This makes more powerful the whole “It’s all a fake” revelations that dog the Warrens and the Hodgsons wherever they go (while they’re just trying to stay alive). So, we have our human interest: Lorraine has visions of Ed (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson reprising their roles effectively and with even stronger chemistry than the first time around) dying, and is none too secure after her recent experiences in Amityville (although this isn’t developed much). And we have our sympathetic single mom (the always lovely Frances O’Connor) and her terrified children.
Mixed in, also very effectively, are frights aplenty. Wan has a big bag of tricks. He’s not above the near literal “BOO!” of a cat jumping out (though that doesn’t happen here), and he’s more than capable of building suspense from atmosphere and relatively benign creaks, knocks and scratches. He’s very good at stretching your attention out into the darkness by not using the same tricks over and over again. Sometimes it’s just a little frisson, sometimes you’ll jump out of your seat, sometimes it’s an oh-my-god-run-for-your-life.
James Wan is one of these directors, like Fury director David Ayer (Suicide Squad) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople‘s Taika Waititi, who’s been tagged to direct a superhero movie. In this case, Aquaman. I don’t, personally, share the antipathy toward this superhero that began as somebody’s comedic routine (Richard Jeni?) and became this contemporary notion that Aquaman is somehow lamer than anyone else in the costumed vigilante world, but I do worry that Wan might end up producing something like Ayer (and, no, I haven’t seen Suicide Squad, but it looks awful, and the reviews are terrible and widespread). Still, this is a guy who did a Fast and Furious movie, so I suppose he’s gonna do whatever, maybe, to get out of the horror ghetto.
Which is a shame, because there’s really no one around as good.