This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
It’s likely that no one man has had a bigger impact on the shape and texture of horror in the last decade than James Wan, and 2013 is the year where this all comes into focus. The guy had already been labeled as a progenitor of the “torture porn” era because he had directed the original Saw in 2004, but time has distorted our memory of that initial offering to bring it in line with the more sadistic and straight-forward, gory series it inspired. Wan did indeed give us Saw, but it’s the Insidious and The Conjuring franchises that better reflect his sensibilities as a writer-producer-director. The films in his wheelhouse are stylish, colorful, people-pleasing popcorn munchers that touch on more complex, metaphysical themes, but never lose track of their top priorities, which are old-fashioned scares and dazzling visuals. And that’s exactly what you get in this year’s Insidious: Chapter 2 and The Conjuring.
2013 is a solid year both for moody, tragical horror dramas and pulse-raising bloodbaths in equal measure. The dramatic front includes such takes as Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as depressed vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive, troubled by modern society, the “diseased” human population and the recklessness of youth. Stoker, meanwhile, is a character portrait of a detached young sociopath, played with cold acuity by Mia Wasikowska, who is tempted toward a dark path by her more actively psychotic uncle.
Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are falls into a similar tonal camp while exploring territory that is arguably even more disturbing, revolving around a rural family whose generations-old religious practice of yearly cannibalism arrives at a crossroads after the death of the family matriarch. It’s an obvious observation on religious fanaticism, but also probes the destructive side of rigid familial influence and the inability to adapt as society changes. Generational culture wars rarely play out in our society with “should we continue the practice of cannibalism” as a backdrop, but it makes for a horror film premise with quite a bit at stake. Featuring scintillating performances and more than its fair share of gore, We Are What We Are is another film that marks Stake Land director Mickle as one of the serious talents currently working in the genre.
Bloody popcorn entertainment also abounds in 2013, as Fede Álvarez’s remake of Evil Dead pushed the limits of blood and gore to Peter Jackson-esque heights, and Warm Bodies explored a surprisingly effective offshoot of the zombie-comedy into the realm of teen romance, complete with a paycheck-grubbing John Malkovich. Mama, meanwhile, hinted at the directorial talents that Andy Muschietti would eventually bring to the box office titan of It, while World War Z served up an adequate big-budget zombie film, while simultaneously disappointing countless fans of its stellar source material. We’re still hoping someone will tackle World War Z again some day, as the anthology movie or limited TV series that it always should have been.
2013 Honorable Mentions: We Are What We Are, Only Lovers Left Alive, Evil Dead, Stoker, Warm Bodies, V/H/S/2, Mama, Insidious: Chapter 2, Frankenstein’s Army, Europa Report, World War Z
The Film: The Conjuring
Director: James Wan
I’m not about to sit here and tell you that there’s a whole lot of originality within The Conjuring, because there isn’t. This story is classical all the way down to its roots, and nearly every element had appeared in numerous haunted house or demonic possession movies in the decades that preceded it. Where James Wan made his mark in 2010s horror wasn’t by overturning genre conventions, but by executing them with a style and scary verve that his competitors were lacking, and nowhere is that more true than in The Conjuring. This is simply a good old-fashioned haunted house movie, cranked up to 11; yet another exhibition of how the old tropes never really go out of fashion—they just need a fresh coat of paint, now and then.
The Conjuring, and the cinematic universe that this film launched of mostly lesser films, uses history as a jumping-off point for creative freedom. Its depiction of demonologist/paranormal researchers Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, emerging as an unlikely “scream king”) is fashioned from the whole cloth, having little if anything to do with a pair of hucksters who are widely reported to have been lifelong frauds, inserting themselves into famous “supernatural” cases to generate publicity and book sales. This cinematic version of the duo dispenses with the sad reality of real-life charlatanism to present the Warrens as what we’d prefer them to actually be—the stuff of great paranormal detective fiction. The film effectively evokes their history and effectiveness with their “museum” in particular; the collection of cursed, haunted or otherwise dangerous objects that the two have collected over the years. As for why they keep these items in their own home, where their child lives … well, it is a horror movie, after all.
The story revolves around a family who move into a creaky country farmhouse, which turns out to be stalked by the spectre of a former witch who cursed the property. And really, that’s all The Conjuring needs to be effective. It’s immediately clear that something isn’t right about this new home, with manifestations of the evil within that seem to take a special interest in the family’s mother and daughter, and we’re quickly off to the races. The film moves at a fast pace, never without a chilling moment for long, while seeming to reference a bevy of horror classics. The spiritual possession angle recalls the central conflict of The Innocents, while the startlingly effective “hide and clap” game is quite reminiscent of one of the biggest scares within J.A. Bayona’s The Orphanage, as well as a sequence in The Changeling. And of course, the influences of the climactic exorcism sequence speak for themselves.
One thing you may not realize about The Conjuring, however, even if you’ve seen the film, is that it carries an “R” rating. This may seem antithetical to the typical rules of thumb surrounding horror film ratings, as The Conjuring doesn’t really display any of the characteristics that typically net an “R.” It doesn’t have much in the way of “gore,” and the violence is more of an implied rather than literal nature. It contains no nudity or prominent sexuality. Rather, it managed the increasingly rare feat of simply scaring screeners at the MPAA so badly that they insisted on an “R” rating simply because they judged the film to be too frightening not to bear one. Suffice to say, quotes like that are catnip to horror fans—there was no way they could resist, and The Conjuring cashed in to the tune of a $320 million worldwide gross, on a mere $20 million budget.
And truly, beyond all the bluster and box office numbers, this is a genuinely frightening piece of cinema, displaying Wan’s talent for preying on frayed nerves and maximizing the potential of each “boo!” moment. In a way that is similar to the back half of the original Paranormal Activity, it manages to upend the typical structure of several jump scares, inserting them into moments when the audience is conditioned to feel more or less safe, or doesn’t have their guard raised, doubling their effectiveness in the process. Although the sequels and spin-offs that followed have been increasingly dubious in quality (particularly the likes of The Curse of La Llorona), the progenitor still deserves our respect as a polished piece of genre craftsmanship.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.