Twin-brother screenwriters Chad and Carey W. Hayes start with Ed and Lorraine Warren, real-life demonologists whose exploits have inspired previous movies. (They were involved in what was known as "The Amityville Horror" and the case that was used in "The Haunting in Connecticut.") The movie informs us early that this is the one case the pair never discussed publicly – "until now" – goosing us in advance to expect something really scary.
The case centers on the Perron family – husband Roger (Ron Livingston), wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and their five daughters – as they move into a quiet Rhode Island country home in 1971. The place looks peaceful, though the family dog, Sadie, senses something amiss and refuses to enter the house.
Sure enough, the Perrons encounter banging sounds, mysterious odors and a walled-off entrance to a basement they didn't know existed. The girls get frightened, with middle child Christine (Joey King, from "White House Down") seeing a creature behind the door, and fourth child Cindy (Mackenzie Foy, Renesmee from the final "Twilight" film) sleepwalking and banging her head against a sinister wardrobe.
Stressed beyond reason, the Perrons call in the Warrens. Ed (Patrick Wilson) is a Vatican-certified demonologist, and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) is a clairvoyant. Ed is wary of taking on the case, after a previous demon-sighting left Lorraine shaken.
The Warrens enter the Perron house and immediately sense a malevolent supernatural force that has latched onto the family and won't let go. In fact, Ed warns, the Warrens' arrival escalates the danger, because the demons sense a threat.
Wan gooses the audience early and often with small-scale surprises, just enough to make the audience grip the armrest periodically. Then he raises the stakes, and the size of the shocks, in a perfectly modulated escalation of scares that culminate in a pull-out-the-stops ending.
The tension is amplified by two strong performances. Taylor, as if atoning for the overwrought spooks of "The Haunting," channels maternal fury and genuine fear into the possessed Carolyn. And Farmiga, currently freaking out audiences on "Bates Motel," is touching as she shows Lorraine's vulnerability and her determination to see the case through to the end.
"The Conjuring" earns its R rating, because some sequences are truly frightening and there's some blood. But the biggest shock of all may be how Wan & Co. generate real terror without buckets of fake gore.
A haunted-house thriller that uses old-fashioned tension instead of overblown gory effects.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, July 19.
Rating • R for sequences of disturbing violence and terror
Running time • 112 minutes.