For its first third, "The Conjuring" manages to deliver some genuine jolts, before sliding into terrain that feels like a poorly written "X Files" episode -- part procedural, part supernatural thriller.
The film's general outlines follow familiar films like "The Amityville Horror" and "Poltergeist," with a nice family moving into a new home. The place is decrepit, but it comes at the right price. The reason, as the family soon discovers, is a malevolent spectral presence that seeks to possess and murder residents of the house.
Enter a pair of ghost-chasing "demonologists," who profess the Catholic faith and see everything through that lens. The film veers into "Exorcist" turf, but with a hint of late night B-movie -- we're asked to believe that the evil spirit in question was once a woman who practiced witchcraft, and had a family relation who was burnt in Salem for similar crimes. (Really? We're now buying into centuries-old anti-woman hysteria? That is horrifying.)
What works here is what works in any truly effective horror move, such as "The Haunting of Hill House" or "The Blair Witch Project," and that's knowing how much to show and just when to show it. "The Conjuring" loses all sense of this once it resorts to "ghosts" who look like they've been done up in zombie makeup and starts playing like an infomercial for the Catholic church.
There are three special features, which all feel like something you'd see on a third-string cable channel show like "Ghost Hunters." In "The Conjuring: Face to Face with Terror," the Perrons, who are the family from the "real" events depicted in the movie, are interviewed. They claim the film is authentic to their experiences, but while you might believe that they believe, no skeptic is going to be convinced.
"A Life in Demonology" focuses on Ed and Lorraine Warren, the married duo who investigated the haunting. (They are also the paranormal detectives who looked into the "Amityville Horror.") We learn that Lorraine sees dead people, and Ed was the only non-clerical demonology expert recognized by the Catholic hierarchy. The gullible will eat it up, but again there's nothing here that can't be explained.
"Scaring the @$*% Out of You" looks at the production of the film, with director James Wan really grooving on the material.
Horror fans might not groove so much. "The Conjuring" hasn't got the campy appeal of unintentionally funny horror movies; nor does it sustain the genuinely creepy air of dread and suspense that the rare, really good horror film creates. Unfortunately, this movie is less than the sum of its tropes. Rent, purchase, or decline this release accordingly.
Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD / Ultraviolet