James Wan is undoubtedly one of the most popular and successful filmmakers in the horror genre today. He's also something of a franchise factory, having kicked off the multi-installment runs of SAW and INSIDIOUS, and as of this weekend's release of THE CONJURING 2 he'll be able to add another series onto his résumé. In anticipation of that film, this week's Face-Off is focused on his two supernatural franchise starters, 2010's INSIDIOUS and 2013's THE CONJURING.
There are a lot of ghosts throughout INSIDIOUS, all vying to take possession of the comatose body of a child who has astrally projected himself into The Further, "a dark realm filled with the tortured souls of the dead." There's a man seen lurking in a baby's room, a playful little boy, a strange woman dressed in black, but the one that emerges as the greatest threat is a hideous red demon that spends its downtime sharpening its metal claws and listening to Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Through the Tulips".
Bathsheba Sherman, relative of Salem Witch Trials victim Mary Towne Eastey, was actually a Satan-worshipping witch. When her husband caught her sacrificing their child just seven days after it was born, Bathsheba ran out of the house and hanged herself from a tree branch. In the one hundred years since Bathsheba's death, children who live on the Sherman property tend to go missing or die, and the women commit suicide - Bathsheba has cursed anyone who takes her land to re-enact the final actions of her life.
The Lamberts are a likeable bunch, and Wan lets us get to know them well. There's Josh, the teacher with a troubled past he doesn't remember; Renai, who put her dreams on hold to raise a family; Dalton, whose secret gift of astral projection gets him into some serious trouble; Foster, a good kid who struggles with how to handle the tragedy his family is enduring; and the infant Cali. We don't know what her personality is like yet, she's just being a cute baby for now. Josh and Renai are dedicated parents who go to great lengths to protect their children, even willingly venturing into a dangerous spirit dimension.
Roger and Carolyn Perron are a relatable working class couple - he's a long distance truck driver, she's a stay-at-home mom to their five daughters. Yes, five daughters. None of the five girls really stand out as characters to me, they're mostly interchangable aside from their ages and heights. Roger and Carolyn don't have the most prominent personalities, either, but all of the actors playing the Perrons do fine work acting concerned and scared. We get the impression that these are nice people and we want them to be safe, but the family is really overshadowed by the characters they call in to help them.
The Lamberts' large suburban home is the perfect setting for the story of a haunting. Lots of rooms and corners, winding wooden stairs, a dark, creaky, cobwebbed attic. When it becomes clear that the place is haunted, the family very wisely vacates the premises... but spirits roam their smaller, bland second home, too. It's not the houses that are haunted, it's Dalton.
If it wasn't inhabited by an evil spirit, the house in this movie would be a great place to live - a beautiful, sprawling farmhouse built on a plot of picturesque countryside. It's quiet, peaceful, and unfortunately terrifying. The dirty, cluttered cellar is where the greatest horror occurs, which hits home for me because I was always afraid of the basement of the house I grew up in.
Josh and Renai seek help from a woman Josh's mother knows from way back - paranormal investigator Elise Reiner. Elise walks in and takes control of the movie, it's easy to see why she would become the center of the franchise, alive or dead. She's assisted by a couple of goofballs called Specs and Tucker, who have modified toys into ghost hunting equipment. The antics of Specs and Tucker almost threaten to alter the tone of the film, but while they will go out of control in future installments (especially part 2) they're mostly reined in here. The investigators are a fun trio who boost the film to another level around the midway point.
Real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, as brought to the screen by the performances of Patrick Wilson (who was also Josh in INSIDIOUS) and Vera Farmiga, are two of my favorite characters to be featured in a horror movie in a long time. I am captivated by this couple and their love for each other, and would have been happy just to watch them without any horror going on around them. And they have plenty of horror to deal with. As they do, they come off as knowledgeable and compassionate, and even when they're scared of the forces they're going up against, they still face them head on.
A creepy atmosphere lingers over INSIDIOUS and there are several scares driven home by a sound design that verges on being obnoxiously noisy, but it works for causing jumps. If this movie doesn't frighten you, it's not for a lack of trying, as Wan never goes very long at all without throwing some kind of scare at you. The most famous moment is when the demon is revealed to be right behind Josh, and that creature is an unforgettable sight.
THE CONJURING is a more leisurely paced film than INSIDIOUS, and Wan takes a more subdued approach to the scares, which I feel makes them all the more effective. The scares in INSIDIOUS get more of "Wow, cool!" reaction, while the scares here are more disturbing. My favorite is when the ghoulish spectre of Bathsheba is revealed to be on top of a wardrobe, then jumps down onto a frightened victim. And that exorcism scene... yikes.
In general, I'm not really into stories of hauntings, films about paranormal activities tend to do very little for me. It takes more than sounds of footsteps and creaking doors to keep me entertained. That said, it works for me when James Wan does it. INSIDIOUS and THE CONJURING are both great films, but I feel that THE CONJURING is the better film, with better characters, and its approach to telling its story appeals to me more. THE CONJURING is one of my favorite horror movies of the last few years, and that's saying something coming from someone who would very rarely give high marks to a haunted house movie.
Do you agree with the outcome of this Face-Off, or do you prefer INSIDIOUS over THE CONJURING? Share your thoughts on these films in the comments section below. If you have suggestions for future Face-Offs, write up your pitch and send it to me at CodyHamman@joblo.com.