By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Director James Wan kickstarted Hollywood's torture porn trend in 2004 with Saw, a dubious accomplishment no matter how tightly constructed. With any luck he's doing the same kind of trendsetting this time for white-knuckle, relatively gore-free fright, first with 2010's Insidious and now with The Conjuring.
Like the earlier film, The Conjuring is a throwback to old-school spine tingling, although this movie is less Halloween theme ride and more 1970s post-Exorcist terror. Former St. Petersburg resident Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play Ed and Lorraine Warren, the true-life paranormal sleuths who investigated The Amityville Horror.
The Conjuring briskly sets up its supernatural ground rules, first with a title card assuring viewers that Ed is a demonologist and Vatican-approved exorcist — handy skills later — and then with a creepy 1968 case involving a demon doll and Crayolas. Lorraine contributes a sixth sense of seeing dead people, again helpful later. Wilson and Farmiga earnestly sell these roles, letting their dialogue do the winking.
Meanwhile, the Perron family is moving into a fixer-upper farmhouse that they'll discover is possessed. Roger (Ron Livingston) is a truck driver, and Carolyn (Lili Taylor) is perfect Mom to five daughters, so there are plenty of kids to turn peculiar. There's a hidden cellar, pitch dark and cloaked with cobwebs that spurred the first audience murmurs of don't go there at Monday's screening.
Sinister stuff piles up. Strange odors and clocks stopping. Unexplained bruises and just the right amount of creaking or slamming doors. We've seen the Warrens dismiss another case as old house syndrome, nothing supernatural. The Perrons' situation is the real deal, and John R. Leonetti's camera floats and flips like a poltergeist through expertly eerie set designs. Jump edits and musical stings are smartly used. The Conjuring gets under your skin, where the goosebumps are.
It was surprising to learn after the show that The Conjuring is rated R, while Insidious — a more graphic film, to my memory — got a PG-13. The Conjuring's bloodletting is minor by comparison and comes late in the game. There are no F-bombs, nudity or sex. This movie was just too scary for the ratings board members, maybe a bad flashback to Linda Blair levitating.
Early in The Conjuring, we learn the Warrens keep a well-stocked trophy room of supernatural artifacts from their cases, including that demon doll. Obviously these two have been doing this for a while. "Better to keep the genie inside the bottle," Ed tells a reporter. Not to mention all the ideas those dusty souvenirs provide for Conjuring sequels.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.