Having apparently wrung every last drop of blood and cash from the Rube Goldberg-ian torture porn of the Saw franchise, director James Wan has turned his attention to scaring the bejesus out of nice families, first with the 2011 demonic-possession thriller Insidious, now in The Conjuring. And while he has largely abandoned the nail-biting hairiness of hands groping for keys in boxes full of hypodermic needles, his new phase –– things going bump in the night –– is actually scarier, because he’s gained an appreciation for the terror of the unknown.
Unfortunately, this being a Hollywood movie and all, Wan can’t let things go unknown forever, and the more he reveals about The Conjuring’s malevolent spirits, the less compelling the story becomes. This is a short way of saying the Salem witch trials are a pretty tired backstory for haunted houses in New England, a trope worn thin enough to make an Indian burial ground seem fresh by comparison.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga star as Ed and Lorraine Warren, the paranormal investigators made famous in The Amityville Horror, an allegedly nonfiction account of a terrific haunting in that titular Long Island neighborhood. The Warrens of The Conjuring are a loving husband-and-wife duo known for their work in identifying and removing spiritual presences, often with the help of the Catholic Church — Ed is apparently such an expert on demons that he’s one of the few people in the world the church will allow to be present at an exorcism, and Lorraine possesses some kind of low-level psychic perception. In the wrong hands, their practiced experience with the supernatural could have turned into cartoonish Van Helsing pretensions, but Wan skillfully roots them firmly in the frumpy, suburban world of the early ’70s; even Ed’s roomful of cursed and haunted mementos feels more like your uncle’s model train collection than a sanctum of unholy relics.
Among these is a demonic doll named Anna, who in addition to harboring an evil spirit is perhaps the world’s ugliest toy. If falling back on witches executed in the 17th century represents Wan’s failings as a storyteller, Anna represents his failings as a visual stylist, because there is no way a child would ever play with a doll this terrifying; it detracts from an otherwise mostly believable scenario. Her role in the plot is never adequately dealt with, and it seems like Wan insisted on putting a creepy doll in his film because he likes creepy dolls.
Anna somehow connects an earlier case with that of the Perrons, a beatific family of seven who buy a massive old home in Rhode Island. After arriving and unpacking, parents Roger and Carolyn (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters begin to explore the house, lousy with creaking doors and the requisite don’t-go-in-there basement. What seems like family fun plus the promise of a new start soon gives way to a murdered dog, mysterious bruises, and spectral hands appearing out of closets. Before long, Carolyn gets mysteriously shut in the basement and flung down its stairs while the girls are haunted in their sleep. Carolyn goes to a lecture by the Warrens and begs them to come knocking on her house’s walls.
Sure enough, the place is haunted, and not by any run-of-the-mill ghost but by the vengeful spirit of a witch who sacrificed her baby to Satan, who since then has coerced subsequent female residents to perform similar murders. Ed and Lorraine bring their helpers and the quaint bulkiness of various vintage recording devices and cameras to bear, aggravating the angry spirit sufficiently to bring on that inevitable the-power-of-Christ-compels-you showdown in the basement.
There’s nothing new here, but Wan knows how to ratchet up tension. The actors investigate every creak and thump with a deliciously frustrating naiveté, and Wan favors long shots that give the movie an almost dream-like progression. A scene in which middle daughter Christine (Joey King) looks under her bed for whatever’s been waking her up is completely hair-raising, tapping into the shared memory of being 12 and staring into the terrifying unknown of a dark bedroom. Wan is a patient filmmaker, and that strength serves him well, whether he has you studying the inky gloom of a basement or admiring a happy family.
For sheer spooky value, The Conjuring is tough to beat. It’s satisfyingly atmospheric and sparing with the scares that jump out of the shadows. As a story, the film’s almost as full of holes as Charlie Brown’s ghost costume — the case the Warrens worked on prior to the Perrons’ left Lorraine emotionally and psychically scarred, but her affliction is not given enough attention to give it any heft in the plot. The same can be said for Anna. She has something to do with malicious spirits latching onto a person, but by the time the sun’s risen and Carolyn emerges demon-free, you’re left wondering what that horrible doll was all about. Despite such narrative bumps, The Conjuring is an effectively frightening film that plays to what James Wan does best: scare the shit out of you.
Starring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. Directed by James Wan. Written by Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes. Rated R.