Something like half the running time of the engaging new don’t-go-in-the-basement thriller The Conjuring is devoted to showing us characters proceeding slowly into the basement, or into the maws of basementlike places we know they shouldn’t go, often with just lit matches or a flashlight to guide them. Twice, deliciously, they’re blindfolded. This is not a complaint. Damned if director James Wan, the auteur of Saw’s rusted-edge cruelty, isn’t an ace with enjoyable spookhouse trap-springing. Often, as members of his fetching 1970s family (headed by Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) negotiate the hallways and crawlspaces of their triple-haunted farmhouse, Wan stirs the shivery feeling of passing through some midnight space you have no business being in. He springs the surprises within patient long shots, timing things so they actually do surprise, often letting the creepy stuff actually creep up: This is the rare horror film where the fear isn’t in what terrible vision the movie might cut to but in what might reach from the shadows you’re looking at. Too bad, then, that the terrors eventually prove so knowable. The story is limited by tricked-up Amityville-style truthiness and the comforting assumption that Catholic orthodoxy will flood the darkness from the world. Save Lili Taylor, who is compelling as the worried mother, and a clutch of young girls, the actors mostly look embarrassed by the material. Vera Farmiga, as fine an actress as Hollywood has ever seen, is upstaged by a powder-blue ’70s collar ruffled like a coffee filter. Screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes bother to craft reasons for the characters to venture where they shouldn’t, and the father even gets asked, “Why don’t you move?” which suggests everyone involved is smarter than the movie.
James WanPatrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor, Shanley Caswell, Hayley McFarland, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Shannon KookChad Hayes, Carey HayesRob Cowan, Tony DeRosa-Grund, Peter SafranWarner Bros. Pictures