Ever since The Amityville Horror made an unexpected splash at the box office in 1979, very few movies about demonic houses have strayed far from the template. Good or bad, these films have the same basic storyline: A sweet family moves into a creepy, creaky, old Victorian or Colonial house in a verdant suburban area, only to be terrified by forces maniacal and demonic. There's a battle between good and evil; a lot of spewed pea soup; violence; blood; holy water; and a great deal of screaming. Variations on the theme have helped sell overpriced oily popcorn for more than three decades.
It would be disingenuous to claim that James Wan's blood-curdling new entry, The Conjuring, is any different. But the superbly cast picture, which stars Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, and Lili Taylor, is unexpectedly fresh, alive, and vibrant - and wonderfully traumatizing.
Wan, best known for inspiring the torture-porn outbreak with 2004's game-changer Saw, stays true to the Amityville formula, even setting the story in the 1970s and shooting it with non-CGI-enhanced, old-school verve.
Plugged as a true story, The Conjuring is based on one of the most difficult cases handled by famous paranormal investigators and demonologists Ed Warren and his wife, Lorraine. Ed inspired an early version of the screenplay 20 years ago when he presented his findings to a film producer. Two decades and several rewrites later, Wan was given a chance to bring the Warrens' story to the screen.
Ron Livingston and Taylor star as Roger and Carolyn Perron, a happily married Rhode Island couple with five young girls. We meet the clan as they are moving into their dream house.
But things go wrong (and bump in the night) when the family is plagued by strange noises and scary events. The youngest kid, April (Kyla Deaver), befriends a dead boy, while her mom wakes up each morning with bruises all over her body.
The Perrons eventually call in Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine (Farmiga, in an assured, sensitive turn), who research the house's troubled, dark past and locate the demonic presence intent on destroying all that is good, true, and beautiful, including the Perron children.
Lorraine and the demon wage a battle of wills that's vibrantly illustrated with flying furniture, a lot of black vomit, screaming, screeching, biting, cutting, and so on.
Wan, who directed 2011's effective if flawed demon-ghost entry Insidious, does a great job. Eschewing cheap scares and excessive gore, he relies on solid acting, brilliant pacing, evocative sound design, and the suggestive use of light and shadow.
He spices up this potent stew with a few well-placed demoniacal freak-outs - scenes of utterly chaotic, violent action that keeps the audience on its toes.
The Conjuring *** (out of four stars)
Directed by James Wan. With Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Hayley McFarland. Distributed by New Line Cinema.
Running time: 1 hour, 52 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, violence, demonic horror, filicide)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.