Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson duel with demons in The Conjuring

by Mark Burger

In movies, especially scary ones, buying a new house never turns out well — especially if it’s a house where something bad has occurred. For the new homeowners, it’s rarely a bargain, and very often they end up fleeing for their lives, if not their very souls.

Such is the case, essentially, in The Conjuring , but this well-crafted assemblage of familiar horror elements wastes little time getting down to its principal intention, which is to spook its audience again and again by any means necessary.

Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor play Roger and Caroline Perron, who move into a new home with their five daughters. It’s not long, however, before things start going bump in the night — and worse. Given the inexplicable nature of the phenomena encountered repeatedly… who you gonna call?

Enter Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), the real-life psychic detectives/demonologists/ghostbusters whose well-publicized exploits included investigating the Amityville Horror. Something clearly is amiss in the Perrons’ house, which the clairvoyant Lorraine picks up on immediately. (The hallucination of a female corpse hanging from a tree is the proverbial dead giveaway.)

As Ed and Lorraine earnestly delve into the house’s dire past, the haunting escalates, with the obligatory apparitions, levitation and, inevitably, demonic possession.

To an extent, The Conjuring preaches to the converted — those who are true believers in all things supernatural. Even minor characters express little or no skepticism about what has transpired.

Everyone’s on board.

So, for that matter, is director James Wan, whose previous shockers include Saw (2004) and Insidious (2010), both crowd-pleasers if not critic-pleasers (Wan’s Insidious sequel is due in the fall). Along with his underrated Death Wish “reboot” Death Sentence (2007), this is among Wan’s best films, whose scares are predicated more on atmosphere and character than blood and guts.

Aside from flashbacks and the predictable early demise of the Perrons’ pet pooch, the film’s body count is refreshingly low and the special effects are judiciously employed. The director also includes plenty of nods to shockers of years past, but they’re not thrown in arbitrarily. There’s a method to the menace, one that Wan orchestrates to maximum effect. The climactic exorcism sequence throws in just about everything.

The cast is a major asset, with Farmiga and Taylor the standouts.

Wilson and Livingston play it straight — a wise move, given the circumstances — and there’s particularly nice work from the youngsters as the spooked children: Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Kyla Deaver (in her screen debut) and Twilight offspring Mackenzie Foy.