A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on July 25, 2013.
The demonic entity depicted in the haunted-house movie “The Conjuring” that elicits so many deafening shrieks from people on and off the screen has no taste for subtlety.
This isn’t the kind of ghost that rearranges your furniture for mere creep factor. No, this ghost skips the creeps and moves right to the frights, endlessly churning terror for an hour-and-a-half until the movie’s bone-chilling climax when the classic image of a ghost in a white sheet is literally turned on its head as you fear for the lives of everyone who’s there to witness it.
That image is where novelty begins and ends in “The Conjuring.” And that’s okay, because director James Wan uses his slavish appreciation for classic horror tropes to deliver the most terrifying movie since the first “Paranormal Activity.”
But “The Conjuring” is nothing like that movie, which slowly and delicately tapped into every last irrational crack in your psyche and lingered there long after the movie was over.
Instead, “The Conjuring” is an all-out assault on your senses that exploits, embraces, but never quite subverts your expectations.
It plays on your recognition of familiar sounds—the creaking of a door, the tightening of a noose—and then ups the ante: the mysterious death of a dog, strange bruises that keep appearing on one character, and crashing picture frames that symbolize the potential demise of a happy family.
Though the scares in “The Conjuring” are familiar, they’re wrought with such careful attention to detail and atmosphere that Mr. Wan doesn’t need to invent new ways to frighten audiences because the old methods work just fine. He uses his unique visual style, a great cast, obligatory religious iconography, and other reliable tropes to tell a story of the macabre that doesn’t have to be about anything in particular except its own scares.
Just as the ghastly demon in the movie arbitrarily manipulates individuals to its will, “The Conjuring” manipulates its audience into taking it seriously, becoming a metaphor for how we willingly allow movies to get inside us and make us accept outlandish premises that are unfit for the real world, even if many of them are “based on a true story,” as is “The Conjuring.”
It’s a needless detail, that all-too-common, ominous signifier of authenticity, because “The Conjuring” is so good you quickly forget that all the characters have real-world counterparts, one of whom consulted on the making of the film. But quite often the personal account of a horrifying run-in with the supernatural in someone’s youth many years ago is, like every “real-life” ghost story, dubious at best, and easily dismissed.
Ghosts and demons are much more entertaining and credible on the screen, especially under the direction of Mr. Wan, who gives them every opportunity to turn the faces of great actors—Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson—white with fear.
Watching “The Conjuring” is a nerve-wracking experience at times, but you share an oppressive sense of dread with the characters, so you’re never quite alone. Whether or not they survive is not for me to say. But if you do, congratulations.
You survived “The Conjuring.”
3.5 stars out 4.