So much is thrown at us by today’s hyperventilating horror that stillness has become the scariest move. Actually, that’s always been the case, but it takes a retro-fashioned winner like The Conjuring to remind us that if the creaky, old house ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Styled like a forgotten Nixon-era classic and set in the autumn of 1971, James Wan’s latest sheds all traces of Cabin in the Woods snark: no cell phones, natch, but no sarcasm either, as based-on-real-life heroes Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), a married pair of self-described demonologists, deliver a college lecture about possession to a respectful class of longhairs. (Even they haven’t seen The Exorcist yet.)
A famous case in Amityville is still a while off for the Warrens when they’re approached by Carolyn (Lili Taylor), mother of five girls, who begs for some paranormal assistance: It seems her family’s rural home, recently occupied, is yielding far too many bumps in the night for the typical fixer-upper. You know the setup from Poltergeist, but this film’s commitment to drawn-out shivers feels almost radical: Children’s games of “hide and clap” yield unwelcome participants; a spooky jack-in-the-box found on a dusty shelf springs the unexplainable. Wan cut his teeth on the first Saw and 2010’s half-realized Insidious, but he’s clearly been hiding an inner Val Lewton, attuned to lingering pauses. And like the wood-grained farmhouse itself—a beautiful piece of production design by Julie Berghoff—The Conjuring has an analog solidity that makes the terror to come almost unbearable.
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