"I don't know why sometimes I get frightened," as the old song says, and it's tricky to recommend horror movies to other people, because what scares us is so very subjective. You can take a critical stance on the performances or the editing or the cinematography or what have you, but when it comes to down to talking about something raising the hairs on the back of your neck or why you throw your hands in front of your eyes, it's a very personal matter.
All of which to say, "The Conjuring" scared me more than any other movie in recent memory. I've been grossed out by gore, and jolted by cats jumping out of closets, yes, but this is something else entirely. For full-on fear and dread, the kind that makes you start squirming at the beginning of the scene, because you know someone's about to open a door they shouldn't, this movie starts creepy and maintains a hold on your spine for the next 112 minutes.
Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson star as married ghostbusters Lorraine and Ed Warren — she's clairvoyant, he's a Vatican-endorsed demonologist — and "The Conjuring" takes us into their case files for their creepiest assignment. (I rolled my eyes at the opening "Based on a true story" title card, since those are the five most abused words in movies outside of "Look out, we've got company!" But during the closing credits, we see pictures of the Warrens, and of the other real-life versions of the film's characters.)
In 1971, trucker Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) moves into a rambling old Rhode Island country house with wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters. Aficionados of haunted-house movies will pick up on the danger signs before the Perrons do: there's a boarded-up basement, the dog refuses to come inside, the clocks all stop at the same time every day, and the youngest daughter suddenly has a new imaginary playmate.
"The Conjuring" doesn't try to reinvent the tropes of horror movies, whether it's ghosts or demons or exorcisms, but Fred Astaire didn't invent tap-dancing, either. Director James Wan, whose "Insidious" felt like a loving homage to "Poltergeist," comes into his own as a masterful manipulator of audience tension.
We've seen these creaking floorboards and middle-of-the-night unexplained events a thousand times before, but he knows just how to stage them for maximum effect. As just one example, the Perron daughters play a blindfolded version of hide and seek that leads to a sequence with Taylor that had me clawing at my armrest.
Wan is aided substantially by a talented cast that throws themselves into the material. Wilson (apparently borrowing Pete Campbell's sideburns from this season of "Mad Men") plays a man who knows his demons but also appreciates that this line of work takes a psychic toll on his wife; Farmiga, for her part, completely convinces as a woman whose abilities make her both powerful and vulnerable, thus making it all the more meaningful when she plunges herself into danger.
And after being saddled with that wretched 1999 remake of "The Haunting," it's a pleasure to see the talented Taylor scream her way through a really good horror movie for a change.
Most thrillers stop being terrifying when their mysteries are revealed, but in the screenplay by Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes ("Whiteout," "The Reaping"), the more we know, the more we dread. And again, one person's edge-of-the-seat screamfest has another person checking their watch. As for me, I was screaming. Out loud. Which I generally don't do in crowded theaters.
For a movie like this, that counts as a standing ovation.