The Conjuring
Directed by James Wan
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston
Rated R for sequences of disturbing violence and terror
1 hr. 52 min.

Does this sound familiar? A family moves into an old house out in the boondocks only to find that their real estate dream comes with some spooky baggage. First it’s the pets, then the kids, then the parents who suffer.

Vengeful ghosts. Haunted rooms. Terrorized residents. There’s nothing in The Conjuring that hasn’t appeared in a thousand other films about creaky country houses with demonic activity. It’s a rehashed idea that offers nothing new in terms of its story line.

But there is one difference: Director James Wan. You remember the original Saw before it veered off into half a dozen mutations? Yeah, that’s the guy.

Except this time around, he’s thrown down a new gauntlet for himself; he’s decided to make a movie that doesn’t bludgeon us with copious amounts of blood, nudity, language or torture.

But the film’s R rating tells you that, while he may have chosen a different approach, the end result is the same:  seat-gripping, scream-inducing, unadulterated terror. Family style.

If you’re old enough to remember The Amityville Horror, this movie is actually a prequel to that incident. It’s an earlier case but the same paranormal investigators — Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren — have been brought in to analyze a house bought by the Perron family in Rhode Island in 1971. As everyone soon learns, the house has had more than its share of ghostly tragedy.

Starting with the mysterious death of their family dog, Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn (Lili Taylor) Perron and their five daughters are perplexed by a series of weird events. Noises at night. Birds flying into windows. Legs yanked. Bruises and welts mysteriously appearing. By the time the Warrens arrive, the family is panicked and in serious need of professional assistance.

After extensive investigation, the Warrens conclude that the house needs an exorcism. The fun begins when they set up camp indoors to track the spirits. Cameras. Microphones. Trip wires. The whole nine yards. As everyone soon learns, the devil loves a good fight.

Director Wan seems to invite skepticism about The Conjuring by taking a familiar story and daring us to believe it’s anything but.

Don’t be fooled. The trickster knows his stuff. Even when you guess what’s coming, he’s so good at the setup, the audience still screams. But hold on. He’s only toying with you, prepping you for the final sprint.

Of course, some of this is so predictable, you have to ask why the movie is R-rated.

The answer lies in the last chapter. Wan throws it all at the audience like the finale at a Fourth of July fireworks display. The end result is a half-hour of terror that ranks with the best of classic horror movies like The Exorcist and Poltergeist.

Wan was also smart enough to choose a strong cast of character actors, including Wilson as the demonologist, Farmiga as the psychic, and Lili Taylor as mother Carolyn. Even though his story feels like something aired on cable, they seem to buy into Wan’s approach and make the idea plausible.

No, you won’t be surprised by what this movie is about. What will surprise you is how terrifying the story becomes and how Wan manages to wring every last gasp and scream from your lips. You might wonder how he does it, using stuff pulled out of the recycling bin, but that’s like asking a singer how she sings or a dancer how he dances. It’s just talent, pure and simple.

Skeptical? Good. You’re the one that Wan wants in that seat. The one who’s seen everything. The gore veteran. Just be ready. Once the lights go down and the story begins, he’s going to scare the hell out of you. Oh, yeah. Believe it.