In the decade since the short that would inspire a feature-length “Saw,” director James Wan has seemed keen on keeping a fair distance between himself and the ensuing legacy of so-called “torture porn.” With the 2007 one-two punch of “Dead Silence” and “Death Sentence,” he opted for more classical spookiness and visceral vengeance, respectively, while 2010’s “Insidious” demonstrated a palpable fondness for the old-school domestic disturbances of “Poltergeist” and the like. Now, before returning to the world of “Insidious” with this September’s sequel and then leaping headlong into the “Fast & Furious” franchise, Wan has marshaled his crack sense of supernatural menace into making his most satisfying scare story yet, “The Conjuring.”
It’s 1971, and married paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) have yet to make their name on a certain Amityville case. He’s a demonologist, she a clairvoyant, and they together give college lectures and handily debunk most supposedly haunted homes. Rhode Island couple Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) offer a more cogent challenge, though, as they and their five daughters have only found themselves increasingly tormented by a series of strange occurrences in their new two-story farmhouse.
The usual motifs are soon in play -- eerie toys, strange smells, creaky floorboards, stopped clocks, dusty cellars, wary pets, sleepwalking, a “true story” disclaimer -- and the Warrens’ tidy summation of routine supernatural behavior (“infestation, oppression, possession”) is fulfilled to a T. The work of Chad and Carey Hayes has made for some fairly unremarkable films before (“The Reaping,” “Whiteout”), and in anyone else’s hands, “The Conjuring” might have been a ready-made snoozer. They do take the time to establish the Perron family as a happy, functioning unit unwittingly pitted against devious forces, and the Warrens as would-be authorities with their own emotional stakes and personal vulnerabilities. While Livingston, Wilson and the young girls all deliver capably panicked performances, the burden falls greater on Taylor and Farmiga, each more convincingly susceptible to supernatural punishment than their roundly tormented kin.
In a particularly knowing gesture, the script dumps its exposition in one fell swoop, cannily keeping the focus on neutralizing an ever-present threat rather than delving into the past in pursuit of a boilerplate mystery. However, structural savvy and pained expressions can only go so far when a hack is at the helm, and Wan has proven himself to be anything but. From the prologue on, the precision of framing and timing on display is oddly comforting in its deliberately unnerving approach. The layout within the Perron home is swiftly established with one continuous take, while long zooms press in from without, only further isolating the family. When night falls, the camera tends to creep the halls with either the ease of a roaming spirit or the handheld jostling of a nervous tenant. Doors open themselves, ghostly figures appear on occasion, and yet the sheer anticipatory tension of the moment is always milked just so, with red herrings and comic relief applied sparingly.
Even as Wan employs familiar fright tactics, he brings to the material an evident emphasis on chilling iconography and careful rhythms, as opposed to leaning on money shots and hokey mythology to generate forgettable jolts. All the contorting girls and pea-soup vomit in the world can hardly compete with a blood-stained sheet and a well-placed doll. Sure, we’ve seen swarms of birds, levitating furniture and chaotic third-act exorcisms before, but even down to its very last shot, “The Conjuring” demonstrates a scary -- and welcome -- amount of care.
SCORE: 8.0 / 10