The dog knows. Always trust the dog. The people, though, they're fools; they think it's the dog's problem. Because unless they're the jaded '90s kids of Scream, the people live in a world where horror movies don't exist, so they still don't understand that the minute the whimpering dog won't go in the house, or the place stinks like corpse-fart, or there's a secret boarded-up basement full of dusty personal terror-possessions left behind when the last owners fled for their lives, it would behoove them to get out of there and drive to the nearest Holiday Inn. Or to a church full of exorcism-skilled ninja-priests and super-nuns.
Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor) and their five daughters move into a creepy, creaky house in the winter of 1970. Early signs (see above) point to a big fat "NO" to questions like: "Shall we hang around for an extended stay as the horrifying, freaky-noise-making-in-the-night entity takes possession of one or more of our souls? Why not go down into that basement while we're at it? Maybe conduct an investigation into why that old piano down there is playing by itself. What could possibly go wrong?"
But they stay. They stay and they call paranormal researchers Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga), experts who, in spite of their extensive experience, may or may not have the power to do much more than identify what exactly is stalking the Perrons.
That uncertainty and formless dread is one of the sturdiest qualities of The Conjuring. They're what provide the essential anxiety-boost to the best of the house-gonna-kill-you horror films currently trending (we don't fear the unkillable maniac anymore, mortgages are way more likely to destroy us). The clutter of awful sequels and their zero-fright obviousness can't erase the impact of director James Wan's first film, Saw, which hinged not only on invasive body ruin, but on the unseen terror waiting for you in the shadows, including scenes that directly put children in the way of the worst kid-fear of them all: somebody in the closet, slowly emerging from the dark. Later, Insidious played on similar unsafe home shakes, which is why the very familiar haunted house premise is capable, here, of fresh new scares. The unknown wins every time.
Better still, Wan keeps a large, talented ensemble cast in play like a vintage multi-ball pinball machine. These aren't no-name horror movie victims or slumming B-listers taking whatever work's available. The cast creates real fear and real panic and Wan keeps bouncing them around inside the horror house and against one another, keeping you guessing with character possibilities and directions that may or may not lead to even more disturbing territory. He toys with the story and creates a wild, jolting, chaotic atmosphere with people, tone, darkness and space, one that never allows the film's characters -- and, more importantly, the audience -- to get a solid footing. Every old-fashioned quality is given a fresh twist, every jolt hits on an unexpected beat. It's the Poltergeist remake that arrives in theaters well before the one they've already got planned. Sorry about that, Poltergeist remake.