Few people, I'm guessing, have been to Harrisville, R.I., site of the alleged true-life incident that inspired The Conjuring. But everyone will find it familiar: an isolated nowhere town where movie families go to get tormented by malevolent spirits. What else could the Perrons have expected when they bought that rotting lakeside farmhouse at an auction in 1971? Haven't they seen, oh, every horror flick ever made?
Director James Wan sure has. Though The Conjuring wears its "based on a true story" tag proudly, the universe it inhabits is purely, unabashedly cinematic. Wan, who kicked off the torture-porn era with the original Saw but has gradually wound back to more traditional forms of horror, reaches into a bag of scare tactics now so elemental the audience titters in nervous anticipation every time the music drops out and the camera holds on a single frame for a tad too long. Will someone slowly descend a dark staircase with only a lit match for light? Yep. Will a figure suddenly appear behind someone as they're looking into a mirror? Of course. Will you know the exact moments to brace yourself? Absolutely.
It feels like a waste of word count to recite the entire plot when a disorganized list of its elements will do: a boarded-up cellar. Mysterious bruises. A clairvoyant dog. Kamikaze birds. A creepy old jack-in-the-box. An almost laughably creepy doll. Haunted linens. That's basically how the movie progresses, running through a hodgepodge of decently executed tropes that add up to an entertaining YouTube montage. At points, Wan goes into straight homage, referencing everything from The Changeling (a ball leaping out of the dark) to Paranormal Activity (invisible forces yanking people out of bed) to The Amityville Horror (the entire thing, really). Even the broken piano in the basement is warped to sound like one of Goblin's synthesizers. By the climax, The Conjuring has evolved into a full-tilt tribute to The Exorcist, and through the performances of its three leads—Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson and especially Lili Taylor—achieves visceral, armrest-clutching fright nirvana. But then it just sort of ends, and you walk out thinking not about Catholic guilt or the power of Christ but about how you should probably go to the beach soon.
Critic's Grade: B-
SEE IT: The Conjuring opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Lloyd Center, Oak Grove, Bridgeport, City Center, Pioneer Place, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville.