Conjuring director James Wan broke in with Saw, but he recognized, almost immediately, that those weren't the type of scary movies he wanted to make. (Saw isn't even like the other Saw movies; it's probably worse than a couple of them.) This is a director inspired by grand, gothic horror, more interested in long silences and swooping camera movements than torture porn or gruesome decapitations. The guy wants to wring you out.
He's extremely good at it. The Conjuring takes place in the '70s and follows two "real-life" paranormal investigators, a married couple played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. (They're the same couple from The Amityville Horror.) A family—the parents are Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, which made me feel old—moves into a farmhouse in Rhode Island and almost immediately crazy shit starts going down. General rule of thumb: When the dog won't come into the house, do not move in. Turns out it's a demonic possession. Those will get you.
How scary is The Conjuring? It's rated R even though there's little cursing, only a couple drops of blood and no major acts of violence that I can recall. Why? Because it's too scary. Seriously, here's what the producers were told by the MPAA:
"When we sent it [to MPAA], they gave us the R-rating. When we asked them why, they basically said, 'It’s just so scary. [There are] no specific scenes or tone you could take out to get it PG-13.'"
They're not kidding. Wan is a master of making you avert your eyes from what's coming next ... even when nothing is actually coming. It wears you out; it tears you up; it knocks you around. It's what a horror movie is supposed to do. There's nothing particularly new here: creepy dolls, evil witch ladies, scary ghost children dressed like Amish kids. But the way Wan mixes familiar tropes together into something that feels both new and familiar is ingenious. He's playing a cover song in a way you've never heard it before. Then, at the end of the song, he hits you over the head with his guitar and slashes your throat with the pick.
I don't particularly like scary movies. Even when done well, I don't find them pleasurable. I get too antsy, too unsettled, too unable to completely lose myself in the film the way I can with my favorite movies. To me, movies are to escape to different worlds, to forget yourself, to give yourself over to the world of a film. Scary movies don't let me do that: They make me keep trying to escape to the real world. For that reason, I hated the experience of watching The Conjuring. That's to say: It's pretty great.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.