Hard to believe, but James Wan's horror tale "The Conjuring" conjures up even scarier stuff than Patrick Wilson's 1971-era polyester sports coats and period hairstyles.
This movie has things that not only go bump in the night, they clap.
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"The Conjuring"★ ★ ★
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston
Directed by: James Wan
Other: A Warner Bros. release. Rated R for violence. 112 minutes
So how scary can clapping be, you ask? Try being blindfolded while playing hide-and-seek with kids who clap to let you know where they are. Except the clapping doesn't come from the kids.
Wan's familiar, old-school haunted house thriller works like a combination of "The Exorcist" and "The Amityville Horror" filtered through the Syfy channel's "Ghost Hunters" reality TV series.
This allegedly true story takes place in 1971 at a secluded old farm house with a history of suicide and murder, plus a bit of demonic possession, none of which the Perron family knew about when they bought the place.
Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) move into the house with their five daughters, and it doesn't take long before one of them complains that someone is grabbing her foot and pulling on it during the night.
Dark bruises mysteriously appear on Carolyn's body.
One daughter starts up a friendship with an imaginary boy who says he's been at the house for a very long time.
When the house quakes, destroying the family photos on the stairway wall, you might think the Perrons would high-tail it out of there.
But like the cash-strapped family in "The Amityville Horror," the Perrons can't afford to go anywhere else.
They reach out to Ed and Lorraine Warren, a married set of professional ghost hunters in Pennsylvania who view it as their calling to debunk phony claims of supernatural terrorism. Or help the victims of the real thing.
(I read the Warrens' captivating first book many years ago, back when I was also into Hans Holzer's "Ghost Hunter" book series. There's definite franchise material here.)
We meet the Warrens at the beginning of the movie when Ed (Wilson), the world's only non-ordained exorcist recognized by the Vatican, and his clairvoyant wife, Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), tell about one of their most terrifying investigations.
It involves a hideous-looking doll inhabited by a demonic force that tricks two gullible college students into granting it permission to live with them in their apartment.
The segment not only turns the simple phrase "Miss me?" into a synonym for "Boo!," it shows us how the Warrens work together, and how each time Lorraine applies her psychic gifts, it threatens her health and safety.
"The Conjuring" follows the Warrens as they move in with the Perrons, set up cameras (vintage Nikons with detachable motor drives) and receive support from a young assistant (Shannon Kook) and a local cop (John Brotherton).
Ed reminds everyone about the three stages of the demonic agenda: instigation, oppression and, finally, possession. (Today that would sound like the three stages of a bank foreclosure.)
Wan, a director with an extensive resume in cinematic scare tactics ("Saw," "Insidious" and another demon doll tale "Dead Silence"), operates in his element here, opting not to push the horror envelope, but merely to refine it.
He proves himself a craftsman of suspense, building well-timed little shocks into explosions of full-throttle terror, accompanied by Joseph Bishara's demented score of shredded violins working in tandem with the old house's creaks, moans and whispers.
(Sometimes Wan falls back on the music too often, using it as a prelude to a scare that we now anticipate, diminishing its shock value.)
Wilson and Farmiga give their low-key married characters a fitting shorthand, as if they've done this ghost-busting thing so often, they communicate through looks and gestures. Both wisely restrain their reactions to the supernatural events, adding an anchor of realism to the ghostly mayhem.
The movie's success mostly hinges on Taylor, a Glencoe native and New Trier High School graduate who drags Carolyn from regular mom mode into Linda Blair territory, complete with startling demonic makeup and appropriate histrionics, but never lets her performance cross into camp or overkill.
"The Conjuring" has a secret basement, poltergeists galore, ghostly sheets and haunting flashbacks. Then it really pushes the boundaries of belief: The real Ed Warren never looked as good as Patrick Wilson.
Note: Variety announced this week that New Line Cinema executives have already given the green light to the second "Conjuring" movie before the first one has opened.