Something like half the running time of the engaging new don't-go-in-the-basement thriller The Conjuring is devoted to showing us characters proceeding slowly into the basement, or into the maws of basement-like places we know they shouldn't go, often with just matches or a flashlight to guide them. Twice, deliciously, they're blindfolded.
This is not a complaint. Damned if director James Wan, the auteur of Saw's rusted-edge cruelty, isn't an ace with enjoyable spookhouse trap-springing. Often, as members of his fetching 1970s family (headed by Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) negotiates the hallways and crawlspaces of their triple-haunted farmhouse, Wan stirs in the sympathetic viewer the shivery feeling of passing through some midnight space where you have no business being.
In patient, long shots, he'll follow the mom (playing hide-and-seek), or the dad (chasing a ghostly sound), or one of their five daughters (stalked by some vague, baleful force) down stairs, around corners and through splintery old doorways. He springs the surprises within those long shots, timing things so they actually do surprise, often letting the creepy stuff actually creep up — this is the rare horror film where the fear isn't in what terrible vision the movie might cut to next but in what might reach from the shadows you're looking at.
Among all the funhouse exploration, there's even a moment that connects to true human dread. One of the daughters, screaming in the night, insists to her sister that someone monstrous is standing in the dark space behind their bedroom door. Older sister Nancy (Hayley McFarland) doesn't believe, and she has the guts to toss aside her blankets and stride over to investigate. That's what's good here. Wan can muster up something more fantastic: that childhood certainty that the night harbors unknowable terrors.
Too bad then that the terrors eventually prove so knowable. The Conjuring's problem, beyond its lack of a conjuring, is how its otherworldly hokum is stubbornly of this world. There comes a point maybe halfway into most contemporary ghost/haunting stories where the story can't help but spoil itself. No matter how effective the early manifestations might be — the banging doors, the nightgowned tweens in their de rigueur catatonia — all the promising weirdness always resolves into familiar specifics. Experts drop by, in this case Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, and diagnose the haunting. From there, everything is settled, often rote.
Ghosts and spirits, especially in movies and TV, are like the lead characters in musicals: They want just one thing, and they want it with preternatural purity. Once we know what it is — to possess and murder, to be put at peace, to meet Jennifer Love Hewitt — the climactic solution is in sight, and all the suspense becomes immaterial. You couldn't detect it with an EMF reader.
That happens in The Conjuring, of course. The script purports to be based on a true story, but the demons-and-crosses finale has as much to do with real life as Fruit Snacks have to do with fruit. Throughout it, I wished the filmmakers had abandoned that tricked-up Amityville-style truthiness and their source material's comforting assumptions that Catholic orthodoxy will flood the darkness from the world. Wouldn't it be scarier if, as briefly occurs in This Is the End, the power of Christ didn't compel when you most needed it to? Even more so than most, The Conjuring is a profoundly conservative horror flick: One of the chief spooks, it turns out, was one of those witches accused at Salem 400 years ago — is the film arguing, then, that theocratic idiots were right to burn them? And by implication that, much later, Arthur Miller was wrong about Joe McCarthy?
Save Lili Taylor, who is compelling as the worried mother, and the clutch of young girls, the actors mostly look embarrassed by the material. Farmiga, as fine an actress as Hollywood has ever seen, is upstaged by a powder-blue '70s collar ruffled like a coffee filter. Screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes bother to craft actual reasons for the characters to venture where they shouldn't. There's none of that "Why not send Tippi Hedren up to the attic?" hilarity here, and the father even gets asked, "Why don't you move?" But the writers never make sense of a prologue about a demon possessing a ridiculous doll, and scenes of Farmiga and Wilson as paranormal experts addressing conference crowds are risible.
Wan does his best, and the horror stuff — despite a too-severe R rating — is mostly bloodless and never punishing. After the big reveal, he plots some effective scares, and he has the good taste to cut away from the predictable final showdown for one last you-are-there sprint through the haunted house. He's an efficient, impressive pop filmmaker — savor the kid's-eye perspective of a peek under a bed, or the way he establishes everything we need to know about the haunted family in the first shot in which we see them. He's moved from grossing us out (in Saw) to smartly spooking us (here and in Insidious). Maybe someday he'll actually scare us.