Here's a story that might ring a bell: In their newly purchased home, a family begins noticing strange goings-on, including cold spots, rank smells and clocks that keep stopping at precisely 3:07 a.m. Frightened and sleep-deprived, the parents eventually ask famed demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren to investigate.
It's "The Conjuring," set in Rhode Island in 1971, just a few years before the Warrens investigated a certain Dutch Colonial made famous by the book and movie "The Amityville Horror." A prequel of sorts, "The Conjuring" treads awfully close to theft -- the only real difference is the surname of the haunted family, the Perrons. What saves the movie is a surprisingly fine cast and deft direction from James Wan, the horror veteran who gave us "Saw."
Patrick Wilson and the excellent Vera Farmiga play the Warrens, who share equal screen time with Ron Livingston (a long way from the 1999 comedy "Office Space") and Lili Taylor as the beleaguered Roger and Carolyn Perron. (Mackenzie Foy, of the "Twilight: Breaking Dawn" films, plays one of their five daughters.) The Warrens are somewhat glowingly portrayed as rationalists who would rather debunk than get out the holy water; Lorraine, a sensitive clairvoyant, sacrifices "a little piece of herself" with each cleansing.
"The Conjuring," written by brothers Chad and Carey W. Hayes, rips off about 50 years of horror classics with a collusive wink: The filmmakers know that we know what they're up to. Some of the mash-ups make sense -- "Paranormal Activity" segues smoothly into "The Exorcist" -- but does Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" really belong here? There are moments when you half-expect Freddy Krueger to check into the Overlook Hotel.
Wan has executive-produced six "Saw" sequels but hasn't directed much, and his 2010 effort, "Insidious," was inexplicably amateurish. He's in top form with "The Conjuring," where he uses clever camera angles and reaction shots to provide maximum jolts and jitters, and never once goes for easy gore. Sound plays a role, too: Ageless Goth singer Diamanda Galás provides "Featured Vocals," and Ryan Gosling's band, Dead Man's Bones, contributes a spooky psych-rock nugget. Overall, "The Conjuring" is so nicely done that you almost forget it's been done to death.
PLOT The ostensibly true story of two paranormal investigators who investigate a haunting in Rhode Island.
RATING R (violence, gore)
CAST Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston
BOTTOM LINE A grab bag of demons, dolls and staticky televisions, but the top-notch cast and clever direction by James Wan ("Saw") provide plenty of jumpy fun.
SHINING EXAMPLES OF FRIGHTFUL FLICKS
Shining example of frightful flicks
'The Conjuring," which opens Friday, could easily be a next-door neighbor to "The Amityville Horror" (1979) in the realm of haunted-house movies. Here are four other flicks about macabre manses that still give us goose bumps.
THE UNINVITED (1944) -- Siblings Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey buy a seaside cottage complete with two specters. Plenty of chills, but nothing is more haunting than the movie's theme, "Stella by Starlight."
THE HAUNTING (1963) -- Four not-so-kindred spirits encounter otherworldly spirits at a New England mansion with a deadly history -- and a bending door -- in Robert Wise's 1963 creepfest.
THE SHINING (1980) -- Jack Nicholson has an ax to grind in this film version of Stephen King's novel, where checkout time comes too soon for some guests at the Overlook Hotel. Director Stanley Kubrick co-wrote the script, but it's Nicholson's improvised line "Heeere's Johnny!" that everyone remembers.
POLTERGEIST (1982) -- Life in the suburbs gets a lot livelier after ghosts communicate to a little girl through the family's TV set and then kidnap her. The frightening climax, when everyone finds out where the bodies are buried, may keep you up for hours that night.
-- Daniel Bubbeo