Rejecting the threadbare "found footage" artifice of recent horror stories, "The Conjuring" returns us to the traditions of dark old houses, creaking floorboards and sudden supernatural shocks. Director James Wan delivers a ruthlessly intense haunted-house ride. Without recourse to the gruesome S&M excesses of his "Saw" franchise, Wan conjures the chill of a demon breathing down your neck.
The film has a classic structure working for it. The setting is 1970s Rhode Island, where trucker Roger Perron (Ron Livingston), his wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters take up residence in a surprisingly affordable old mansion. There are settling-in pains. The girls experience tugging sensations at their ankles as they sleep. It could be sleep twitching. Carolyn finds livid bruises on her body each morning. It could be iron deficiency. Those spooky chords from the abandoned piano in the basement … mice?
But what of the menacing presences the younger girls claim they sense? Cinematographer John R. Leonetti's restrained camera puts you in a jittery trance as it stares and stares into the abyss of a darkened bedroom. You hope it will glimpse something to break the tension. But you really, really hope it won't.
There's a moody blue-collar naturalism to the film that helps us suspend disbelief. The flat lighting and timeworn look of the sets and costumes create a claustrophobic universe. The film builds a strong charge of anxiety as we realize the Perrons are trapped, economically, spatially and spiritually.
When the family's night terrors become intolerable, they ask the help of husband-and-wife paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). The Warrens have a young daughter of their own, and a home museum of occult artifacts from previous encounters with supernatural evil. Devoutly religious, they understand the Perrons' plight and want to help. But an exorcism gone "horribly wrong" has left Lorraine damaged and fragile. Taking the new case could be a disaster. And yet it's their duty.
"The Conjuring" borrows from a panoply of classic shockers, but respectfully, earning every citation through its sincerity and craftsmanship. The performers go about their work as if no one told them this is "just" a horror movie.
The story unfolds with very few breaks for comic relief (Ed informs Roger that a demonic spirit attaches itself to a vulnerable human "like stepping on gum") or cheap scares. There are exquisitely eerie sequences here. At one point a burly off-duty cop brought in by the Warrens washes a coffee cup in the Perrons' kitchen. Wan frames the shot so the window over the sink is prominent. You can't take your eyes off the window, convinced that something awful must be about to smash through it.
Wan draws out the suspense, elaborates the scene with a digression that doubles down the tension, and pays it off with a jab-hook-uppercut of shocks that leaves your popcorn forgotten on your lap.