Not too long ago, when watching a movie about a haunted house, you could silently scold the family for ignoring the obvious: You need to get the heck out of there! It doesn’t matter if you sank every penny in the grand old place, just run and leave the demons, restless spirits or bad juju behind.
But today, movies are more likely to focus on apparitions or dark forces that attach themselves to families and just packing up the SUV won’t shake them. Like the luggage on the roof rack, they will go along for the goose-bumpy ride.
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"The Conjuring," opening tonight, falls into that second category and then ups the ante.
It was drawn from the real-life case files of married demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. They lend a gravitas to the proceedings about a family hectored and haunted from the first night in their Rhode Island farmhouse in the early 1970s.
Big-rig driver Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters ages 8 to 18 pull up in their station wagon and, despite the family dog’s refusal to enter the premises and the immediate discovery of a concealed cobwebby cellar, the mom utters those fateful words: “It’s gonna be great, isn’t it?"
There is no honeymoon period here as Carolyn develops bruises for no apparent reason, the girls report funky smells in the bedrooms and the clocks all stop at 3:07. That’s nothing compared with what’s to come, from a girl being dragged across the floor by her hair to the levitation of a chair — and the person in it — which is then spun upside down.
This looks like a job, not for Superman, but the Warrens, who say most spooky sounds or sights have logical explanations although they have an occult museum in their home that testifies otherwise. It’s where they store items used in satanic and witchcraft rituals along with exorcisms, but even the paranormal investigators may have met their macabre match this time.
"The Conjuring" reunites director James Wan ("Saw") and CMU grad Wilson, who teamed on “Insidious," a horror film about demonic possession and a young boy who mysteriously falls into a coma.
Ms. Farmiga, an Oscar nominee for “Up in the Air," has had many on-screen brushes with bad seeds in projects ranging from A&E’s “Bates Motel" (she’s Norman’s smothering mother) to “Joshua" and “Orphan."
They play this straight, taking the Warrens’ formidable task as seriously as the real couple apparently did. Their fascinating story takes a backseat to the Perron family’s until they meet and race along on the same terrifying track where Ms. Taylor’s stay-at-home mom and the girls literally bear the brunt of the demonic infestation.
"The Conjuring" is not exactly “The Exorcist," still the scariest movie ever, but it gets the jittery job done. Its 1970s setting means no modern ghost-hunting tools, and its low or modest budget seems apparent, but that gives it an old-fashioned vibe.
This is not about the special effects but the true-life story. To keep the movie to a manageable 112 minutes, some dramatic license was taken. Andrea Perron, the eldest of the daughters and a Chatham College graduate, has written that the family lived among the dead for nearly a decade.
No matter. Something awful happened in that house to a family looking for a little room to breathe; instead, the seven found menacing forces that wanted them to die. It may not give you nightmares, but it should produce a gasp or two and enough chills to counter the summer’s swelter.