The Conjuring uses every parlor trick imaginable to scare up a scream: deafening door-slams, ghostly apparitions, demonic cackling, levitating chairs. But the seen-it-before elements of this supernatural thriller, directed by Saw's creator, are more hoary than horrific. It might as well be retitled The Amityville Exorcist.
Purportedly based on a true story, the film takes place in a haunted Rhode Island farmhouse recently inhabited by the Perron family. The spooks waste no time terrorizing Roger (Ron Livingston), Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters in their new home, which has -- red flag number one -- a mysteriously boarded-up basement. (Red flag number two? The family dog refuses to enter the house.) Soon things don't merely go bump in the night: They crash, boom and clatter. The preternatural funny business escalates as unseen hands tug on sleeping bodies, and the dead make spectral appearances.
Enter husband-and-wife paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), who try to cleanse the house of a demonic spirit that possesses mothers to kill their young, just as it did centuries ago. Before you know it, crucifixes are brandished and holy water is flying. The power of Christ -- or something along those lines -- is needed to compel a straight face during all of this ear-splitting nonsense.
Aside from its blatant thievery, The Conjuring falls short because of an odd narrative structure in which the Perrons and the Warrens vie for viewers' sympathies. When the film diverts attention to the latter in a sequence involving a creepy doll named Annabelle, any momentum achieved earlier is lost. At this point, the film almost stops dead in its tracks, only to be dragged kicking and screaming to its conclusion by a series of events that damage its credibility as a truth-based tale. This film wants it both ways, claiming veracity to make its premise seem legitimate and then using familiar (read: overused) tactics to scare the bejesus out of you. It's enough to make your head turn 360 degrees.