James Wan is an established Big Shot now, with directing credits on mega-franchises like The Fast & the Furious and the upcoming Aquaman movie. But before 2010, he was best-known as the director of the torture porn phenomenon Saw after which his career got tripped up a bit with a couple of duds (apparently called Dead Silence and Death Sentence) before redeeming himself with a return to his horror franchise-building roots with the successful Insidious. But for my money, he really hit his stride with the first installment in what has become another convoluted cinematic universe, The Conjuring.
What Wan did with The Conjuring was not just direct a terrifying and expertly made ghost story, but he laid down a pretty much fool-proof template for the franchise to use in its ongoing quest to amass all of the world's money supply. A haunted house movie is pretty much the definition of a genre film, and is bound by all sorts of rules of the game: jump-scares, spooky silhouettes, demonic possession, creepy basements, dead-eyed kids, etc. But Wan took these basic parameters and gave them an exceedingly competent, almost workmanlike quality that differentiates his films from a lot of other entrants in the horror genre.
The first thing is the confident coherence of the camera work. In the beginning of The Conjuring, and in all subsequent entries in the franchise whether directed by Wan or not, the camera goes on an extended tracking shot of the house where the action will go down. These tracking shots serve to establish, right from the get-go, the geography of the house and thus the world of the film. We know where all the walls, stairs and rooms are and how they fit together. This may seem like a simple thing, but it gives the viewer a reference point for all the sometimes hectic action that is to follow. When someone has to run from one room to another being chased by the rotting corpse of a demon or what have you, we know exactly how far they have to run and how many doors they need to get through. This makes the tension work so much better than when these basic facts of spatial awareness are obscured. It also helps to give some body and life to the house itself, which is critical in these types of ghost stories because the demon always finds its way into the humans by first possessing the house. When we have some idea of this house as a real physical space, it makes everything else work better.
Secondly, I think having Ed and Lorraine Warren serve as paranormal ghostbusters is a pretty neat way to ground the action and allow the plot to move smoothly along a three-phase arc. First we start building the tension with a series of increasingly creepy things, often just barely glimpsed in the background or suggested by what the characters can see or smell but we can't. Once that reaches the limits of its dramatic usefulness, the Warrens arrive to assess the situation, providing a reassuring lull in the action before giving way to a full-throated crescendo in which the demon is confronted and the mystery of the haunting revealed. This structure lets the action rise in a series of tension-building waves before finally arriving at a climax in a way that feels natural. It also provides clarity to the narrative and allows for some fun ghost mystery solving which I enjoy. Often I think horror films are just one-trick ponies, and so they find it difficult to sustain the tension for the length of a feature film. By the end they're already burnt out.
The period setting also juices the narrative because let's be honest - there is nothing scarier than the interior decor and fashion choices of the 1970s. In The Conjuring, Wan expertly cultivated this period feel with some vintage 1970s camera moves, like the judicious use of a well-timed long-zoom. I also like that they don't play the premise - that this is based on real life events - in any ironic way, but lean into it with an earnestness that is probably necessary to make the whole thing work. Plus it makes the movie an automatically interesting topic of water cooler conversation, although I must confess I have never had an extended conversation with anyone at a water cooler.
The sum of these parts is a template that can be copied almost a limitless number of times: confident camera work that establishes the lay of the land ---> gradual build-up of noises and weird bruises and jump-scares until we are on the edge of our seats ---> entrance of our heroes who use religion to figure out what is going on ---> levitating chair/blood vomit/witch face. I doubt Einstein could have come up with a more elegant equation. And thus, presto change-o, you have a replicable template for success. I hadn't seen The Conjuring before I watched Annabelle: Creation, but now that I have seen the blueprint that David F. Sandberg was working off of I can more fully understand why it was so delightfully and diabolically terrifying.