Sadie knows. The dog always knows not to go into the haunted house.
But since this was 1971, and the world, much less Rhode Island’s Perron family, had not seen “The Exorcist” and the generations of ultra-realistic horror movies and “Ghost Hunters” TV shows that followed, they didn’t see heed the dog’s warnings. The Perrons were in for it.
“The Conjuring” is like a prequel to 40 years of demonic possession thrillers, a movie about the original ghost hunters, Ed and Lorraine Warren, and an early case this “Amityville Horror” couple found so terrifying they never talked about it — “until now!”
James Wan, who made his horror bones with “Saw” and outgrew torture porn with the superbly spooky “Insidious” reunites with his “Insidious” star, Patrick Wilson, for this solid and sometimes hair-raising thriller about a haunted house, the family of seven (five daughters) haunted by it and the can-do couple summoned by the Perrons.
The Warrens lecture at colleges, show film of inexplicable supernatural events and collect the possessed artifacts that they weed out among all the false alarms that are usually creaking pipes and settling floorboards. Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) is clairvoyant, which means she sees what those truly spooked see and feels what they feel. Ed (Wilson) may be credulous, but he’s the pragmatist — applying 1960s and 70s pre-digital technology to his search for “proof” of what they’re dealing with.
These cases have three phases, he lectures — “infestation, oppression and possesion.” He’s got a ready answer for dealing with them when Caroline and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) invite them over. Are their kids baptized?
“We’re not really a church-going family.”
“You might want to rethink that.”
The humor in “The Conjuring” comes from the naivete of the victims — Caroline doesn’t recognize her bruise marks as demonic injuries, their five daughters don’t know their invisible friends, their sleepwalking and the mysterious bumps and claps that ruin their games of “Hide and Clap” are ghosts — and the gee whiz let’s-invent-this-trade, ghost hunting — of the Warrens.
Wan and his screenwriters serve up some classic scary situations and provide a decent jolt or three in the “sealed off basement,” the ghostly shadow in the mirror of an antique jack-in-the-box. There’s something particularly insidious about a monstrous menace to children. Farmiga and Wilson play the Warrens as slow to take on urgency, with a seen-it-all world weariness that robs some scenes of their true terror.
And horror audiences are more sophisticated than this story. A movie that plays like horror’s greatest hits — a little “Exorcist” here, a dose of “Chucky” or “Paranormal Activity” there — is going to feel tired, even with the odd surprise.
It conjures up a few frights, but “The Conjuring” is more solid than sensational and spine tingling. Think of it as a horror history lesson, yet another “based on a true story” to explain those things that go bump in the night.
MPAA Rating:R for sequences of disturbing violence and terror .
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston
Credits: Directed by James Wan, written by Chad and Carey Hayes. A New Line/Warner Brothers release
Running time: 1:52