A supremely effective haunted house film that brings every every tool in the tool box out to scare the heck out of the viewer.
The set up is nothing original. A cash strapped family buys a huge old house for cheap and discovers a malicious entity already resides there. Too broke to move, they call in paranormal researches Ed and Lorraine Warren to help.
Who hasn’t seen that premise before? But what the film lacks in original concept it makes up for in great characters, phenomenal skill behind the camera, and a really nicely story about family.
First, all the characters feel genuine and lived in. The family feels like a real family. Their relationships feel authentic and are given real weight. Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor especially make the weight of the family’s finances feel real. This is essential for buying into the premise and making the movie work. These two clearly care about their daughters and about what’s best for the family. They aren’t going through the motions. Real care and real heart was invested in these characters.
Where this film shines is the skill and invention behind the camera. The director was James Wan who has gone on to great heights, but here he seems laser focused on utilizing the elements of his craft to achieve the goal of creating fear. Hand in hand with Wan are the writers Chad and Carey Hayes. The situations these guys concocted are fantastic. Some are frightening just from the jump. A game of hide and seek where the player is blindfolded and listens for the claps of those hiding except this time a ghost decides to play too is a terrific setup that pays off big time. Another great setup is one of the daughters sleeping in bed. An unseen hand pulls on her bare foot repeatedly and forcefully in the night. The sentence alone is chilling. However one of the scariest scenes has almost no setup at all. A girl sees something behind the door. That’s it. It takes Wan’s finesse and skill as a director to turn this into a symphony of tension and fear. The door and the corner behind it are blank and simple, but the way they’re shot, the lighting, editing and the performance all work in perfect harmony to create the most unsettling scene possible. James Wan made a door scary.
Underneath all this is a story of family. It’s about a force within the house trying to tear this family apart and how the bonds of family must overcome that force. All haunted house movies can be read as allegories. Some are about neglect or abuse or alcoholism. A force within the family turns a once loving family member into a monster. This film sets up that allegory, but doesn’t beat the audience over the head with it. The best horror films are about more than frights and fear. This film holds up as a film even if the ghosts and demons are cut out.
Personally I love this film. It really hits me in my fear center. It is the right combination of scary and fun. It has great character work and clever moments. It’s just so well made. There’s a reason it inspired the vast genre of ghost and demon horror movies we’re seeing.
It’s completely my cup of tea. A+