The Harrisville Horror: Retro-fashioned "Conjuring" atmospheric and hair-raisingly scary

The Conjuring (2013)
112 min., rated R.

Understand this: a film purporting to be "based on a true story" is not a new marketing ploy nor does it automatically make the experience much more horrifying. It didn't help "The Amityville Horror," but "The Conjuring," the latest entry in the wear-and-tear supernatural subgenre, is so scary that it doesn't even need that gratuitous tag, just an R-rating. Cutting his teeth on "Saw" (the 2004 original, not the second or the seventh), proving ventriloquist's dummies to be creepy again in 2007's "Dead Silence," and then mastering a scary funhouse out of 2011's "Insidious," director James Wan is already on his way to become a contemporary virtuoso in the horror genre. This time, "The Conjuring," a classically crafted, ruthlessly spooky, and retro-fashioned fright film that looks and feels like a child of the 1970s, remembers it's scarier not to always see what's going bump in the night. 

Based on the most malevolent case of Connecticut married couple Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), who work as demonologists/paranormal investigators, the film centers around the Perron family in 1971. Truck-driving husband Roger (Ron Livingston) and wife Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) move their five girls to an old, spacious farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island. Over the first few days, Carolyn notices every clock stopping at 3:07 and wakes up each morning with a new bruise that she suspects is an iron deficiency; the girls complain about a rancid odor; and a closet reveals to be a boarded-up cellar. Soon, Carolyn and the daughters are all equal opportunity for a haunting, so she contacts the Warrens. Upon entering the house, the clairvoyant Lorraine knows something awful happened there. A previous exorcism took a toll on her, but from a mother to a mother, she hopes to rid the Perron family of the dark, hateful entity that has latched onto them. The first two demonic stages—"infestation" and "oppression"—are down; now "possession" to go.

With refreshing attention to characters and a slow-simmering pace, "The Conjuring" breathes new life into what otherwise could have been an empty series of door-slamming genre beats, foley effects, and jump scares. From the prologue involving the Warrens' earlier case with a possessed doll named Annabelle haunting two young nurses, to the deliciously retro title scroll, and its overall preference for practical effects and trick photography over CG overload, James Wan conjures up an old-school, pleasingly freaky mid-summer treat that's not about splatter or a body count. It's for those looking to clinch their armrests and have one's heart jump into his or her throat instead of look away in disgust. Twin screenwriters Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes combine the Warrens' relationship with the haunting at hand, also addressing why the Perrons don't just leave their house in a simple piece of dialogue. Including an inspired game of hide-and-clap, eye-covering business with the spiraling mirror of a twinkly music box and a spectral playmate named "Rory," and startlingly well-timed moments separately with a bedroom door, a bouncy ball and an old wardrobe, there is an equally intense and restrained smorgasbord of creeping dread and jump-out-of-your-skin jolts holding you in anticipation, as well as a rumbling soundtrack made for a theater sound system. John R. Leonetti's autumnal and atmospheric cinematography has plenty of slow zooms and stylish camera movements (love that under-the-bed shot); production and costume design (by Julie Berghoff and Kristin M. Burke, respectively) are top-shelf for any genre; and there's added period flavor with The Zombies' "Time of the Season" and Dead Man's Bones' "In the Room Where You Sleep."

Every character is more than just bait for a scare and it helps a reliable cast has been assembled and that performances are so strong. Indie actress Lili Taylor, who has experience with hauntings in the blah 1999 remake "The Haunting," is immediately sympathetic and moving as Carolyn, whose most wonderful memory is being on the beach with her family. She's also quite the trooper when Carolyn must go through the wringer. Ron Livingston gets off scot-free as far as the hauntings go, but he's convincing as a father and husband type. As all five daughters, Shanley Caswell (Andrea), Hayley McFarland (Nancy), Joey King (Christine), Mackenzie Foy (Cindy), and Kyla Deaver (April) make up a likable and believable brood. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, especially, go above and beyond the call of ghostbuster duty as Ed and Lorraine, who have a daughter of their own named Judy (Sterling Jerins) and truly want to help Carolyn and her family. 

Filmaker James Wan's latest bid for homelessness might not offer the same level of nightmarish set pieces that still linger in the mind as "Insidious," but it's quite dependable in giving shivers to even well-versed genre fans. Conversely, it's more of a complete film if you take the "it's not over" conclusion of "Insidious" and remember that there's a sequel due out in September. As the late, great Roger Ebert said, "It's not what a movie is about, it's how it is about it," and that's exactly right. "The Conjuring" should feel creaky and oh-so-familiar after so many haunted house movies have come down the pike, but this is the genuine article, the fun, hair-raising, and well-made kind that makes you appreciate daylight. Try sleeping tight after this one.

Grade: A -