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(2013) (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) (R)

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Horror: Married paranormal investigators try to help a family terrorized by a demon in their farmhouse.
It's 1971 and Carolyn (LILI TAYLOR) and Roger Perron (RON LIVINGSTON) have moved into an old farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island with their five daughters, Andrea (SHANELY CASWELL), Nancy (HAYLEY McFARLAND), Christine (JOEY KING), Cindy (MACKENZIE FOY) and April (KYLA DEAVER). After they accidentally discover a boarded up door and stairwell down to the cellar, strange things start occurring. Such as the clocks in the house always stopping at 3:07 am, something invisible yanking on Christine's legs as she sleeps at night, and young April having conversations with a boy no one else sees.

When the paranormal activity increases to the point of scaring the girls, Carolyn seeks out the help of Lorraine (VERA FARMIGA) and Ed Warren (PATRICK WILSON). They're a married couple -- and parents to young Judy (STERLING JERINS) -- who investigate such matters, what with him being a demonologist and her a clairvoyant.

Sensing a demonic entity in the house, the Warrens enlist the aid of their tech assistant Drew (SHANNON KOOK) and local cop Brad (JOHN BROTHERTON) to capture evidence of such a presence so that the Catholic Church can begin exorcism proceedings. When things quickly escalate and threaten to get out of hand, however, the investigators and family must do what they can to contain and hopefully expel the evil that's in the house.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
If you think about it, filmmakers who do the majority of their work in the haunted house or demonic possession sub genres of horror films often operate much like the supernatural entities in their pics. For reasons directly connected to humankind's primal fear of the dark, most of the spooky stuff occurs at night. Both believe in building suspense through thumps, creaks, squeaks and such and then unleash some sort of big startling moment on the target "audience." And both sides of the cinematic equation start out the spooky stuff small and then build until, sometimes literally, all Hell is breaking loose.

All of which means, especially with every subsequent release, it's becoming increasingly difficult to spook viewers. And that's simply because we've seen most every storytelling and filmmaking trick in such regards, often multiple times. In response to that, some filmmakers try to take a slightly different route to deliver the chills. One of them was the advent of so-called torture porn where the horror was from watching deranged people inflict pain, suffering, dismemberment and death on victims, all in the name of assumed entertainment.

One of the earlier instigators in the recent resurgence of that trend was James Wan, half of the filmmaking duo that delivered "Saw" onto unsuspecting audiences and turned it into a movie franchise and created a number of imitators. Apparently wanting to make amends for that or at least simply return to a more palatable form of making horror movies, the director has followed up his old school horror offering "Insidious" with "The Conjuring."

Based on real-life accounts of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (best known for their work with George and Kathy Lutz and their Amityville residence), the film is a decent entry in the genre as it delivers most of its chills and thrills the old-fashioned way. In fact, and while some violence finally arrives in the third act, the flick earns its R rating not for the usual blood and gore, but instead due to "sequences of disturbing violence and terror."

I'm all for that -- in terms of trying to scare viewers -- as it takes more creativity and confidence in storytelling to use such an approach rather than simply showing people being sliced and diced. That said, there's nothing new here as we have the standard story of a family (Lily Tyler and Ron Livingston as the parents, a quintet of young actresses as their daughters) moving into an old house that's straight out of Central Casting for such spooky abodes.

Things start going bump in the night and then some, resulting in the ghostbusters (no, not those guys -- instead it's Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) arriving to investigate and document what's occurring. That's followed by a full-out possession and later exorcism. Novelty isn't remotely in play, and while some might expect a snarky comment such as "Nothing to see here folks, keep moving along," I found most of it effective for what it's trying to do and be.

Granted, "The Exorcist" has nothing to worry about in terms of losing its cinematic crown in terms of depicting possessions and exorcisms. And "The Shining" still stands as one of the best-made horror flicks ever made in terms of both scares, acting, storytelling and filmmaking prowess (many have tried but none have matched the late great Stanley Kubrick's lone work in the genre).

That said, Wan obviously knows the conventions and trappings and at least applies a new finish to the old stand-bys, thus making genre staples such as the "don't look under the bed" moments fairly effective in terms of making viewers tense up and wait for something to spring forth into the camera shot. He also gets decent work from his performers, particularly the ladies both young and old who deliver believable performances.

That said, none of them are developed enough to have their various predicaments truly get under one's skin. As a result, and especially if seen with a vocal, communal crowd, the film -- like "Paranormal Activity" and others of its ilk -- comes off more like a theme park haunted house attraction where giddy laughs accompany the shrieks and screams. I might have had a somewhat different reaction had I watched this home alone, in some old and creaky house (a place, for what it's worth, where I think most horror films are more effective).

While nothing new and playing up and off the various tricks previous horror films have used over the years, "The Conjuring" still delivers enough effective scares and spooky material to warrant a 6 out of 10 rating.

Reviewed July 15, 2013 / Posted July 19, 2013

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