“The Conjuring” is one heck of a ghost story. Based on the highly scientific DLPG scale — measured by the number of times I looked over my shoulder as I hurried through a Dimly Lit Parking Garage after the movie — it’s a well-above-average thriller. If it isn’t quite up there with such classics of the genre as “The Haunting” (1963 version, please) or “The Others,” it isn’t far behind.
Set in 1971, the story is said to have been inspired by the files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, a husband-and-wife team of paranormal investigators. The action takes place in a 150-year-old Rhode Island farmhouse, where, almost immediately upon moving in, Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters start to experience disturbing events.
First the dog won’t come inside. Then there’s a foul odor, followed by unexplained cold spots, clocks that stop at 3:07 a.m. and miscellaneous visits by things that go bump in the night. Thankfully, there are no bleeding walls, though the movie does bear an obvious debt of gratitude to “The Amityville Horror,” the real-life setting of which was also, coincidentally, investigated by the Warrens. When things get out of control one night — about the time a female poltergeist tries to body slam one of the daughters from the top of a haunted antique wardrobe — the Perrons invite the Warrens over to have a look-see.
As played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, the Warrens bring a sort of deadpan credibility to the admittedly far-fetched goings-on. With their scientific equipment and professional demeanor, they’re more like supernatural termite inspectors than the “demonologists” that they advertise themselves to be. Their characters keep the film grounded, even when it wobbles and threatens to lose its balance.
Fortunately, director James Wan also knows his way around a haunted house. Although “The Conjuring” exploits a melange of fright-inducing techniques — including ones cadged from “The Exorcist” and the “Chucky” movies — it wields them, for the most part, more judiciously than Wan’s “Insidious.” That 2010 film started strong before flying way off the handle, with a demon that looked like Darth Maul crossed with Gene Simmons in his Kiss makeup.
There are times when “The Conjuring” itself could use a bit more restraint. Its climax, for instance, involves an amateur Catholic exorcism that makes “The Exorcist,” William Friedkin’s pioneering 1973 possession drama, seem like a documentary. But the scares that the film delivers, if less than bone-chilling or deeply, deeply creepy, are consistently satisfying.
There’s a quote at the end of the film by Ed Warren about the struggle between good and evil. Demons and malevolent spirits, Warren believed, were real and constantly at war with the forces of love and light for our souls. To a large extent, your predisposition to accept or reject this worldview will determine how much of “The Conjuring” you’re willing to swallow. It’s strongly based on Christian theology.
Whatever your belief system, this much is gospel: Movies like “The Conjuring” are less about the battle between God and Satan than the battle between the silly and the scary. In Hollywood, good usually triumphs over evil, if only temporarily. (Gotta leave room for a sequel.) In “The Conjuring,” the scary casts out the spirit of the silly, permanently, and with a vengeance.
R. At area theaters. Contains intense scenes of terror and violence. 112 minutes.