We never seem to get sick of haunted house movies, do we? It has to be considered one of the most reliable (not to mention profitable) sub-sections of our beloved horror genre. From The Old Dark House (1932) to The Haunting (1963) to The Amityville Horror (1979) to Poltergeist (1982) to recent hits like Sinister, Paranormal Activity, and Insidious -- to say nothing of their sequels -- audiences never seem to tire of things that go bump in the night, especially when it happens in a location that seems familiar, safe, and comfortable.
I reminded you of all that just so I could say this: feel free to add The Conjuring to the long and colorful list of legitimately novel, clever, and/or plain ol' scary haunted house movies. It comes from director James Wan, a guy who started his career with Saw but has spent a lot of time since then paying homage to old-school horror thrillers with efforts like Dead Silence, the aforementioned Insidious, and its impending sequel. It speaks to Mr. Wan's affection for the "classical" horror tropes that he used his Saw success to make movies like Dead Silence, Insidious, and The Conjuring -- and when a filmmaker can turn their affection into something of their own, well, that's when we get movies like this one.
To its inestimable credit, The Conjuring is "about" little more than a family (mom, dad, and five energetic daughters) that slowly comes to realize that their new home has a terrifying history *and* at least one demonic spirit that roams the hallways forcing people to commit horrible acts of violence. No subplots, no extraneous baggage, just a simple concept, some clever writing, and a handful of great actors.
Aha, but there is a "B story," and this is what prevents The Conjuring from becoming yet another basic but forgettable tale of creaky floorboards and mysterious whispers. You know the "paranormal experts" who show up in virtually all of the haunted house movies? The ones who deliver a lot of exposition (usually about the house's history) and try to save the day through technology and/or a little help from God? Well, in The Conjuring, those two characters are actually fully-realized, three-dimensional, and surprisingly interesting people. Most of the first half of The Conjuring focuses on the desperately beleaguered Perron family, but we also cut away to the husband & wife team of Ed & Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigators who always seem to save the day.
The Perron's plight works well, the Warren subplot works as a welcome respite, and then the two families meet up to do battle against the spirit of a long-dead witch who will do anything to punish the people who have encroached upon her property. Plot-wise, there is very little that the seasoned horror fan has not seen before, but presentation-wise there's simply a whole lot to like about The Conjuring: the low-key 1971 Rhode Island location, the lovely Frank Leonetti cinematography that manages to make the Perron house feel huge, inviting, and (ultimately) a horrific maze of shadows, sharp angles, and hidden corners; a canny balancing act between earnest family heart and normal-life believability (the five young ladies playing the Perron daughters are, for example, all great); and then there's the cast...
Reliable indie-friendly veterans Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston are the parents dealing with a huge paranormal problem, and the ghost-chasing spouses are played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. All four deliver excellent performances across the board, handling the basic drama with no problem and selling the scary stuff with professional vigor. Ms. Taylor may offer one of her best performances ("ever!") as a woman who has five daughters, a massive new house, and a rash of weird new bruises all over her body. Even in the film's quieter moments, these four actors (and the five girls!) are simply fun to watch, and when things start to get scary, The Conjuring is even better.
And the third act simply fires on all cylinders.
So while (obviously) there's nothing new about "haunted house movies," there's always something to be said for a new one that pays close attention to craftsmanship, character, a welcome sense of class, and of course a half-dozen OMFG moments that will make you shriek a little. And please pay no attention to the MPAA's ridiculous "R" rating. The Conjuring has no profanity, no sexy stuff to speak of, and very little in the gore department. In other words, I highly recommend The Conjuring for family horror night viewing. Kids can take being scared. Trust me.