“The Conjuring” conjures up memories of a horror era once removed. There are no choppy edits, it goes easy on the gore, and the majority of the scares come from what you think is lurking in the dark, not from some cheap special effect the movie is showing you.
Harkening back to the supernatural chillers of the ’70s like “The Amityville Horror” and “The Omen,” “The Conjuring” is a haunted house thriller that earns its scares based on mood. The movie is set in 1971, two years before “The Exorcist,” but it duplicates that classic’s overwhelming sense of dread and methodical pace. Yes, things do get real in the third act of “The Conjuring,” and yet you’re in no hurry to get there because the movie is under your skin almost from the get-go.
Sometimes, “The Conjuring” takes the easy route in its terror. I mean, creepy porcelain dolls with demonic smiles and cracked faces? That way of thinking is reminiscent of one of director James Wan’s lesser horror movies like “Dead Silence,” which made the error of spelling everything out for us. “Conjuring,” on the other hand, is rooted primarily in the effect the terror is having on fleshed-out characters, including a quintet of young girls whose legs are repeatedly yanked on while they sleep.
In an obvious nod to “The Amityville Horror” (which the movie even alludes to as it is drawing to a close), “Conjuring” is about a working-class family (headed by Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) who purchase a house for a steal only to find out it is also home to a demonic entity with sights on their five daughters. Enter Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as a demonologist/clairvoyant husband and wife team who vow to cleanse the house of its haunted history and let the family live in peace.
Predictably, “The Conjuring” does build to an exorcism in the final act, but, admittedly, it’s probably the weakest part of the film because it’s made up of the stuff we’ve come to expect from films like “The Exorcist” and “The Devil Inside.” The creepiness that comes before it — including a wince-enducing game the girls invent called Hide and Clap that builds to one eerie moment that was unfortunately ruined in the ads — is just so much more effective because there isn’t one moment where you will predict where “The Conjuring” is headed.
All you need to know is that it’s usually headed in a direction designed to scare the hell out of you and, considering the level of creepiness is pretty consistent throughout, the best way to see “The Conjuring” is with a big crowd of fraidy cats.
★★★ out of ★★★★
Rated R for intense supernatural stuff. 112 minutes, 2013.
Director: James Wan. Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga.