The sound of two hands clapping. A seemingly innocent music box. A ball bouncing across a basement. A crayon rolling along the floor.

In "The Conjuring," director James Wan uses simple images to scare the wits out of his audience -- and, boy, is he good at it. The film is a chilling, entertaining, old-school fright fest that artfully relies on what we don't see or we only glimpse, not on heavy doses of blood and gore, for its most viscerally effective moments.

Lili Taylor searches the darkness in "The Conjuring"Warner Bros.
Lili Taylor searches the darkness in "The Conjuring" Warner Bros. ( Michael Tackett )

Based on an event from the case files of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, "Conjuring" opens with the Warrens (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) detailing one of their investigations at a college lecture. It's the story of two college roommates and a malevolent doll that would frighten the wits out of Chucky. The setup is a way to immediately grab the audience, but it also serves as an introduction to the pragmatic Ed and the sensitive Lorraine, a clairvoyant with a sixth sense that lets her see and feel things that Ed cannot.

The bulk of the film is set in 1971 at a rural farmhouse outside of Harrisville, R.I. For Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) and their five daughters, the ramshackle place is their dream home. But Sadie, the family dog, has a feeling that something is wrong and refuses to go inside.

Smart dog, that Sadie.

Soon, things start to go bump in the night. A favorite game of the kids -- Clap and Hide -- turns into something otherworldly. Pictures fall off walls. A hidden basement is uncovered. Bed covers are pulled off sleeping children. Rooms suddenly are cold. Things smell rancid. Unexplained bruises start appearing on Carolyn's legs and back. The dream house is turning into a nightmare.

Since it's the 1970s, and the Ghostbusters won't turn up for another decade, the Perrons turn to the Warrens. Ed has been through this enough to be a bit dubious, but Lorraine immediately senses that there is something to the Perrons' story.

It isn't long before the Warrens realize that a demonic entity has come into play. Worse yet, the Perrons can't even do the smart thing and get the heck out of Dodge, leaving the house far behind. The entity has attached itself to the family. It's a bit, says Ed Warren, "like stepping on gum. It sticks to you."

When the Warrens suggest an exorcism is in order but that they will need permission from the Catholic Church, Roger says, dubiously, that "we're not really churchgoing people." Replies Ed: "You may want to rethink that."

Wan has proved himself quite deft at scaring people in the past, especially in his 2010 haunted house thriller "Insidious." (He also directed a couple of the "Saw" films, the nasty torture porn flicks, but he avoids those extremes with this movie.) With "The Conjuring," he clearly set out to create old-school frights and cleverly tips his hat to "The Exorcist," "Poltergeist," "The Amityville Horror" and Alfred Hitchcock ("Psycho," "The Birds") throughout the film written by Chad and Carey Hayes ("The Reaping").

Working with cinematographer John R. Leonetti and editor Kirk Morri, Wan carefully crafts each set piece so that each visual punch has maximum impact from a nerve-shredding musical soundtrack from composer Joseph Bihara. Sometimes, that includes making the audience think something is coming. When it doesn't, the audience relaxes -- only to be whacked by a fright when they least expect it.

It helps that Wan has a very skilled cast, particularly his female leads. Farmiga, one of the best actors on television this past season in A&E's "Bates Motel," is haunting and haunted as Lorraine Warren, managing to convey the way her abilities drain her body and soul. Taylor, who takes the brunt of the entity's psychic punishment, gives an intense performance as the housewife battling to save her family.

What keeps "The Conjuring" from being a truly classic spooker are a final throwdown with the evil that that isn't quite as effective as what's come before, and a failure to explore more fully the Warrens' faith and courage in the face of true terror.

But it's doubtful that will stop those seeking a good fright from flocking to Wan's movie. Be warned, though: You may end up sleeping with the light on.

For film news and more, follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.

'THE CONJURING'

* * *

Rating: R
(for intense images and scary sequences)
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston
Director: James Wan
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes