Gorehounds will gnash their teeth in disappointment at "The Conjuring," a trim, effective haunted-house spook show from James Wan, director of the original "Saw." Where are the flying entrails? The freshets of blood? The dismemberment of any body part that has the temerity to stick out?
Sorry, boys, that's partly the point. "The Conjuring" represents a big-studio response to the "Paranormal Activity" series, found-footage horror movies that cost a dime to make and whose strength comes from showing less — and making you wait for it — rather than more. The new film is also a throwback to '70s real estate shriekers like "The Amityville Horror," to the point of being based on another "actual case" by Ed and Lorraine Warren, the paranormal investigators who brought fame to that fly-ridden house on Long Island.
Instead of the bumptious hand-held realism and no-name cast of "Paranormal Activity," "The Conjuring" trots out elegant camera work and actual Hollywood stars. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are cast as the Warrens, and Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston play Carolyn and Roger Perron, a working-class couple with five daughters whose run-down dream home in the country turns out to have a bad case of the Beelzebubs.
The movie takes its period setting seriously enough to outfit the stars in hideous period couture — Wilson's powder-blue suit/plaid tie combo may be the most frightening thing here — but the filmmakers are also smart enough to remember it's the little things that scare us. The Perrons play a version of Blind Man's Bluff called "the clapping game," and when a blindfolded Mama Perron responds to a clap in another room that we know doesn't come from one of her daughters, neck hair reliably rises.
The Warrens have their own demons to contend with — literally, since Ed keeps a trophy room containing objects from past investigations that tremble with pent-up evil. (One of these, a maniacal-looking doll, turns out to be a virtual halfway house for wayward demons.) Ed is a layman exorcist who can't proceed without a proper priest, and a good deal of suspense in the late innings of "The Conjuring" stems from the characters waiting around for a green light from the Vatican. Linda Blair's probably at the head of the line.
If Wilson creates a figure of brusque, increasingly stressed pragmatism, Farmiga almost turns "The Conjuring" into a different movie altogether, one about a loving wife and mother whose gifts for clairvoyance slowly eat her away with sorrow. Taylor, meanwhile, gets to run the gamut from good-hearted mama bear to full-on Bad Mother, and by the final scenes she's a shocking sight: The She-Devil in the basement, bursting through sheets and manacles with unmatriarchal fury. In its glossily twisted way, "The Conjuring" is a women's melodrama about fears of domesticity — "We Need to Talk About Kevin" reconfigured as a poltergeist freak show. No wonder the men stand around looking useless.
Wan directs the escalating jolts with the panache of a talented journeyman. He's out to scare you silly rather than gross you out, and the film's R rating comes more from intensity than blood loss (and also because no self-respecting horror junkie would be caught undead at a PG-13-rated movie.) "The Conjuring" digs up no new ground — indeed, it seems almost proud of its old school bona fides — but it plows the classic terrain with a skill that feels a lot like affection. The ghost that's really haunting this movie is nostalgia.