An uncommonly intense and frightening experience, The Conjuring is the first genuinely scary release in ages by a major studio that features practically no violence and spills only a bit of blood. The film is rated R, but that’s primarily for the sweaty-palm tension director James Wan builds while relying almost entirely on old-school tricks — creaky doors, dark hallways, sudden noises and cobwebbed cellars.
The movie was inspired by the real-life exploits of the husband-and-wife team of Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren, paranormal investigators who worked nearly 4,000 cases involving hauntings, demonic possession and poltergeist activity (including the famed Amityville Horror incident, which was eventually debunked).
Ed was a demonologist who knew how to perform exorcisms, while Lorraine was a clairvoyant. One of the refreshing things about The Conjuring is that unlike Mulder and Scully, this couple has no skepticism or doubt. When hired, they always look for a rational explanation first, but they also treat supernatural phenomena seriously: They believe in ghosts and the devil and evil.
Those three things abound in a Rhode Island farmhouse bought in 1971 by a couple (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) with five daughters. The family dog immediately refuses to enter the large home. Their first night there, all the clocks in the house stop at 3:07 a.m. and some of the girls complain about strange smells and noises. In a week’s time, things get so out of control that the Warrens are called in. They are stunned at what they find.
The Conjuring is at times reminiscent of The Haunting, which used only sounds and suggestion to frighten you, and Poltergeist, in which another family plagued by ghosts sought professional help. But The Conjuring achieves an intensity far stronger than either of those films could. Wan, who started out reveling in torture-porn horror (he directed the first Saw and the grisly revenge picture Death Sentence), has gradually gravitated toward a gentler, subtler style of horror (he also made Insidious and its sequel, due for release later this year). Written by twin brothers Chad and Carey Hayes ( Whiteout, The Reaping), The Conjuring may not be the most original take on haunted houses: You’ve seen a lot of these scenarios before. But Wan uses camera movements and compositions to constantly keep you off-balance, and the film moves at a rapid clip, constantly building suspense until its freaky, free-for-all climax.
The movie is smart enough to anticipate what the viewer is thinking (why doesn’t the family just move out of that creepy place?) and establishes a kind of logic that is never betrayed: The movie doesn’t cheat. The Conjuring is a rollicking funhouse ride elevated by excellent acting, superb craftsmanship and an ingenuity that comes up with new ways of frightening you. You know a horror picture is working when one of the scariest moments in the entire thing is a simple shot of two hands clapping.