Early on in James Wan's sixth film, we’re shown a room of scary relics accrued by paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) over a life of busting ghosts.
For good and bad, Wan’s career is that room in movie form. Invoking Dario Argento’s baroque operas ( Saw ), demon-doll movies ( Dead Silence ) and ghost-house horrors ( Insidious ), Wan’s filmography is nothing if not derivative.
But he’s also well-studied enough to spin clichés into popcorn scares, which is where his new haunting/possession hybrid scores for much of its length.
The Conjuring taps a true-life tale, but it’s the patient pacing that makes it. Time is taken to introduce the Warrens, not flakes but professionals whose sincerity matches Wan’s own, non-arch approach.
And we meet the Perron’s, who require getting-to- know-you time because Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger (Ron Livingston) have five daughters, a big clan newly relocated to a house with big secrets involving farty whiffs, witchery and worse.
If those secrets seem familiar, it barely matters because the drip-feed of old tricks and a slow-drifting camera combine to stoke our expectation. The prologue alone will eat anyone with a phobia of creepy antique dolls alive.
At the Perrons’ pad, cellars beckon, dogs whine, clocks stall, wardrobes open... and out march the set-pieces, marshalled by Wan with such PoV-jostling vim that you hardly mind when he resorts to jump shocks, brazen riffs on Paranormal Activity , and even ghostly bed sheets.
Sturdy casting helps, from Wilson’s dependable solidity to Farmiga’s under-the-top restraint.
Frustration kicks in all the harder, then, when the finale hurtles over the top. Over-compensating for prosaic final-act revelations, the climax ditches controlled chills for a decibel-slamming deluge of hokum.
Coherence isn’t the only casualty. Excess exhausts the plot’s options, too, leaving it nowhere to go other than towards an ending flatter than the often overly expository dialogue.
Don’t expect Wan’s reserves to run dry, though. When he steers us back to the Warrens’ room of relics his point is clear.
Bringing a welcome chill wind to summer’s release slate, and with Insidious 2 imminent, Wan surely has the first of two 2013 hits on his hands.
We’ll be seeing more from his supplies of scares.
Refreshing old haunts with old-school sincerity, James Wan delivers the weekend chill-seeking goods. The shock of the new is absent, but it works. Don’t... look... under... the... b-b-b-b-bed...