Genuine ghostly scares materialize with The Conjuring

Strong female roles elevate familiar but effective ghost story

Let the record show that I did not technically scream at an afternoon screening of The Conjuring. I freely admit that the noise I made during the fiendishly effective horror film was not anything as dignified as a gasp, however. A sequence with Lili Taylor’s beleaguered mother built up to a “Boo!” moment based on not a loud noise or horrific image, but on such a simple, impeccably crafted shock that I emitted an “Uck!” of alarm.

The Conjuring stands out amid the seemingly interchangeable occult thrillers about haunted houses and/or exorcisms that practically flood modern movie theaters. Director James Wan improves on his similar 2010 release Insidious by placing spooky phenomena within rich photography and sympathetic, well-rounded characters.

Chad and Carey Hayes base their screenplay from a genuine paranormal investigation by Lorraine and Ed Warren, a married pair of “demonologists.” As played by Vera Farmiga and Insidious’ Patrick Wilson, the Warrens don’t hard-sell their beliefs and respond to supernatural events with matter-of-fact conviction. Skeptical audiences can enjoy the film without endorsing its presentation of events as “real.” A prologue set in 1968 shows the Warrens investigate mysterious goings-on involving possibly the most evil-looking doll in movie history.

The Conjuring jumps forward to 1971 and shows Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) and their five daughters move into a converted Rhode Island farmhouse at the edge of a murky pond. Initially the Perrons love their home, which offers plenty of space for the girls to play an ominous-looking game that combines Hide and Seek with Blind Man’s Bluff. As they settle in, they hit a jackpot of horror movie warning signs, including a sealed off-basement, a creepy music box, repulsive smells, an imaginary friend, and clocks that stop at the same time every night.

When their experiences become physically harmful, the desperate Perrons turn to the Warrens for help. Lorraine’s psychic abilities give her visions of grisly hangings on the property, and the Warrens deduce that thanks to the home’s secret history, a malevolent force has attached to the Perron family. They could move, but the attacks would continue.

Critics have justifiably scolded Hollywood this summer for the lack of female-centric films (not counting The Heat). The Conjuring deserves some credit for two excellent leading roles, well-played by Farmiga and Taylor. Horror films frequently build suspense by preying on vulnerable females, and The Conjuring is no exception: Not only do the Perrons have five daughters, the Warrens have a little girl who is dragged into the spectral conflict. Nevertheless, Farmiga and Taylor give solid, empathetic performances as two devoted mothers trying to marshall their resources in the face of impossible threats.

Like many haunted-house movies, The Conjuring succeeds better at cultivating atmosphere than resolving its threat. The mood grows less eerie when the supernatural events become more explicit. Still, The Conjuring proves less nihilistic and more human than many recent horror films, and generates scary scenes in both quantity and quality.