Haunted house movies only work if the people in the house are worth scaring. Sounds stupid, but it’s true, although let’s be honest: Real estate is inherently frightening. You put all that money in and only Satan knows if it’ll turn out to be a decent investment, or if you’ll be able to afford what it takes to repair any undisclosed matters of basement seepage. The quirks and creaks of an old house are good for gallows humor or a cold shot of dread.
When a really good new horror film comes out — something more about creative intelligence than executing the next grisly kill shot — it’s something of a miracle in this eviscerating post-“Saw” era. Old-school and supremely confident in its attack, “The Conjuring” is this year’s miracle — an “Amityville Horror” for a new century, yet firmly rooted, without being slavish or self-conscious, in the visual language of 1970s filmmaking.
Also like “The Amityville Horror,” “The Conjuring” derives from an alleged true-life haunting, this one in rural Rhode Island, at an old house where terrible things happened and are happening still. The relative restraint of “The Conjuring” is a surprise given that the director, James Wan, made the first of the “Saw” films.
The script by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes blends the tales of two families under extreme duress. Demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life ghost hunters played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, investigate the strange goings-on in the riverside farmhouse owned by a family of seven (two parents, five daughters) headed by Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn (Lili Taylor). Warning signs and troubling details abound, but subtly, in the opening sequences. The family dog won’t go inside. The clocks stop every night at 3:07 a.m. Unexplained bruises appear on the mother’s body, and one of the daughters complains of someone tugging at her feet in bed. Then the ghost of a long-dead child appears to one of the girls in a mirror. The out-of-tune piano found in the cellar plays … itself.
Before all that, though, “The Conjuring” begins with a bait-and-switch and an entirely different story set three years earlier, that of a devil doll in 1968 terrorizing nurses in Manhattan. The doll ends up in the possession of the paranormal investigators played by Wilson and Farmiga. They have a young daughter of their own, who’s no less vulnerable to demons and such than the Rhode Island girls living by the river.
Shooting digitally but with great attention to practical and postproduction lighting and color effects, Wan and his cinematographer, John R. Leonetti, keep the “gotchas!” coming. Near the end, when the full-on possession is underway, “The Conjuring” starts to feel more familiar, and there’s less downtime between thrills. Wilson, a solid actor, brings to the material a stalwart leading-man aura that’s more serviceable than compelling on its own.
But the movie belongs to the women, for once, and “The Conjuring” doesn’t exploit or mangle the female characters in the usual ways. Farmiga, playing a true believer, makes every spectral sighting and human response matter; Taylor is equally fine, and when she’s playing a “hide-and-clap” blindfold game with her girls, she’s like a kid herself, about to get the jolt of her life.
Might this movie actually be too good, in a slightly square way, to find the audience it deserves among under-20-somethings? Maybe. Maybe not. I hope not.