The old-fashioned haunted house movie is alive and well on the evidence of James Wan’s creepily effective new effort in the genre, which is more naturalistic than his previous film, “Insidious,” but even more effective because of it. It also features a cast that’s far more accomplished than the norm in this type of picture.
The script is very loosely based on a case investigated in 1973 by Ed and Lorraine Warren, the paranormally-involved couple who also looked into the episodes that inspired “The Amityville Horror” and “The Haunting in Connecticut.” Here, Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) are asked by Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) to visit the isolated eighteenth-century house into which she, her husband Roger (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters have recently moved. The place soon gave evidence of multiple apparitions and supernatural events, some with a disturbingly menacing quality. Soon Ed, Lorraine and their two assistants (Shannon Kook and John Brotherton) have brought their equipment to the house in hope of amassing sufficient evidence to persuade the Catholic Church to authorize an exorcism. But before the clergy can get its act together, the malevolent powers at work in the house—which are explained through the place’s dark history—have threatened the Warrens’ own daughter and taken hold of one of the members of the Perron family, leading to an extemporaneous cleansing ritual without benefit of clergy.
The script by Chad and Carey Hayes represents a much embellished version of what actually occurred in 1973. (The Warrens’ participation in the episode was actually much more abbreviated than what’s shown here.) But that’s what’s known as dramatic license, and in horror movie terms it doesn’t matter much. In this form it makes for a moody, atmospheric yarn that generates real tension and suspense through the most economical means—simple sound effects, cunning camerawork, sharp editing and visual effects that by modern CGI standards are pretty fundamental (much simpler, certainly, than those in the last reel of “Insidious”). It also benefits from appealingly understated performances by Farmiga and Wilson, as well as an understandably more agitated one by Taylor as the frazzled mother. Livingston is rather a wash, as he often is, but the girls who play the Perron daughters are a n engaging bunch, with Joey King (who also stood out as Channing Tatum’s courageous kid in “White House Down”) especially good, and both Kook and Brotherton add some welcome touches of humor without breaking the overall atmosphere of dread.
“The Conjuring” is often derivative, of course, and not only of “Amityville” and “Connecticut.” One scene is an obvious homage to “Poltergeist,” and one can hardly have an exorcism scene without calling William Friedkin’s classic to mind. Given its lineage, “Insidious” certainly crops up, and the “Paranormal Activity” franchise too, as well as Wan’s “Dead Silence” in the shape of a haunted doll. But that’s the very essence of genre moviemaking. It’s not so much what “The Conjuring” reminds you of, as whether it uses the conventions skillfully. It does, and so becomes the cinematic equivalent of a well-constructed spooky carnival attraction.
The title of “The Conjuring” doesn’t quite work from a narrative perspective. The Perrons don’t “call forth” the spirits through any ceremony; the ghosts show up by simply by reason of the family’s presence. But the movie certainly conjures up a nerve-wracking spell of its own, proving that moviemakers don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Sometimes just mixing up the old formulas correctly is enough.