The mere sound of two hands clapping will have audiences begging for mercy in “The Conjuring,” a sensationally entertaining old-school freakout and one of the smartest, most viscerally effective thrillers in recent memory. Dramatizing a little-known account from the 1970s case files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, director James Wan’s sixth and best feature is pull-out-the-stops horror filmmaking of a very sophisticated order, treating the story’s spiritual overtones with the utmost sincerity even as it playfully mines all manner of apparent cliches — creaky doors, cobwebbed cellars, toys you’d have to be just plain stupid to play with — for every last shiver of pleasure. What’s a moviegoer to do but join with the demons and applaud?
Having moved the New Line production up from February to a July 19 release date on the basis of through-the-roof test-screening reactions, Warner Bros. would appear to have an estimable mid-summer hit on its hands. That the MPAA opted to give the picture an R rating, claiming it was simply too scary for a PG-13 despite having met the basic content qualifications, should do little to hinder its tremendous word-of-mouth potential in theatrical and ancillary play.
While it owes an obvious debt to the likes of “The Exorcist,” “Poltergeist” and “The Amityville Horror” (itself inspired by the Warrens’ most famous case), this exuberantly creepy supernatural shocker is in many ways the film Wan has been working toward his whole career; it not only incorporates elements from his 2007 demon-doll thriller “Dead Silence” and his 2010 haunted-house saga “Insidious,” which felt like a warm-up exercise by comparison, but also taps into the sly, self-aware vein of humor that has long been one of Wan’s trademarks. And coming from the director who helped push indie horror toward ever more dubious torture-porn extremes with “Saw” 10 years ago, “The Conjuring” feels all the more remarkable for being a relatively gore-free piece of mainstream craftsmanship, the work of a B-movie maestro in full command of his studio-given resources.
A prologue quickly establishes the picture’s weird combo of straight-faced religiosity and genre-savvy irreverence as it introduces Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and his clairvoyant wife, Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), who have devoted their lives to studying, warding off and sometimes directly battling the forces of evil. Together these Connecticut-based demonologists project a down-to-earth folksiness that belies the seriousness of their convictions and the hair-raising intensity of their spiritual warfare. Their understanding of the occult world is so rigorous and methodical (they debunk several misconceptions early on) as to inspire immediate confidence in the scripting smarts of brothers Chad and Carey W. Hayes (who also collaborated on 2007’s less effective Bible-thumping thriller “The Reaping”).
The story was inspired by an alleged case of demonic possession so horrifying that the Warrens kept it under wraps for years, despite having been quite open about their work in their numerous books, lectures and TV appearances. It’s 1970 when Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) and their five daughters move into their dream home in Harrisville, R.I., only to swiftly realize they are not the sole inhabitants of this secluded lakeside farmhouse. The demonic manifestations seem fairly routine at first: doors opening and slamming of their own accord, an obligatory spot of animal cruelty, the girls feeling a strange presence tugging at them in their sleep, and dark bruises appearing on Carolyn’s legs and back. Yet it takes almost no time for “The Conjuring” to immerse the viewer in its spell, as it teases seemingly minor jolts into frissons of terror, and turns a simple game of hide-and-seek into a tour de force of sustained excitement.
Impressively, the film achieves its most startling effects through motion, not stasis. Wan’s command of horror technique isn’t just virtuosic; it’s borderline rhapsodic, playing the audience like Hitchcock’s proverbial piano (a literal example of which is shown collecting dust in the Perrons’ extremely frightening cellar). Cinematographer John R. Leonetti’s widescreen compositions are forever in flux: The handheld camera pursues the characters from room to room in long, patient tracking shots, shifting from one uneasy perspective to the next and prowling every inch of the house’s cavernous, ramshackle interiors (brilliantly conceived by production designer Julie Berghoff).
In terms of what he does and doesn’t show, Wan strikes an ideal balance between the power of suggestion and the satisfaction of a good, in-your-face scare, and he and editor Kirk Morri expertly modulate the film’s dramatic rhythms, allowing the audience an occasional breather between setpieces without losing the momentum. Crucially, the sense of danger only accelerates when Ed and Lorraine temporarily move in with the Perrons and seek out answers, delving into the house’s chilling history of witchcraft, possession, suicide and satanic ritual murder. Along with an investigative assistant (Shannon Kook) and a skeptical but helpful cop (John Brotherton), they even set up film cameras hoping to catch some glimpse of the apparitions at work, like something out of an analog prequel to the “Paranormal Activity” franchise.
Ultimately the sort of relentless, expertly tricked-out scarefest that leaves one feeling happily drained rather than deeply, permanently unsettled, the film nonetheless heightens its impact by playing the material utterly straight where it counts. The two lead actresses rep the major casting coups here, both maxing out their scream-queen potential without skimping on dramatic heft: Taylor gamely submits to all kinds of physical and emotional extremes as the loving wife and mother on whom the house exacts its most frightening toll, while Farmiga movingly conveys Lorraine’s astounding courage as well as the enormous sacrifices her sixth sense requires. She and Wilson (also in “Insidious”) achieve a rock-solid rapport as two eccentric but authoritative individuals who selflessly and unapologetically view their marriage as a force for good in the world.
Loosely approximating the mildly funky fashions and longish haircuts of the period, the film reinforces its ’70s orientation with stylized homemovie footage and the occasional use of a paranoid zoom lens. “Insidious” composer Joseph Bishara supplies another deranged symphony of screeching strings, working in nerve-shredding counterpoint to the film’s inventive soundscape of bumps, creaks, whispers and pauses.