When a really good new horror film comes out, one that's 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 (and a far better movie than that 1979 hit), yet firmly rooted, without being slavish or self-conscious, in the visual language of 1970s filmmaking.
Also like "Amityville," "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. A more apt reference point is Wan's recent, slow-simmer horror outing "Insidious," which like "The Conjuring" took its time in establishing the ground rules.
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 miserably out-of-tune piano found in the cellar plays ... by itself.
Shooting digitally but with great attention to practical and post-production lighting and color effects, director Wan and his cinematographer, John R. Leonetti, keep the "Gotchas!" coming. Near the end, when the full-on possession is under way, "The Conjuring" starts to feel more familiar, and there's less down-time between thrills. (Wan's technique grows more obviously hysterical as the characters do.) 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.
Wan shoots "The Conjuring" like a Robert Altman film, slip-sliding around the interior or the exterior of the old dark house in a series of slow zooms and gratifyingly complex extended takes. Might this movie actually be too good, in a slightly square way, to find the audience it deserves among under-twentysomethings? Maybe. Maybe not. I hope not.
MPAA rating: R for sequences of disturbing violence and terror
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: In wide release