So much is thrown at us by today’s hyperventilating horror film that stillness has become the scariest moment. Actually, that’s always been the case, but it takes a retro-fashioned winner like The Conjuring to remind us that if the creaky, old house ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Styled like a forgotten Nixon-era classic and set in the autumn of 1971, the latest effort from director James Wan sheds all traces of Cabin in the Woods snark: no mobile phones, natch, but no sarcasm either, as based-on-real-life heroes Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), a married pair of self-described demonologists, deliver a university lecture on possession to a respectful class of longhairs.
The famous case in Amityville is still a while off for the Warrens when they’re approached by Carolyn (Lili Taylor), a mother of five girls, who begs for some paranormal assistance. It seems her family’s rural home, recently occupied, is yielding far too many bumps in the night for the typical fixer-upper. You know the setup from Poltergeist, but this film’s commitment to drawn-out shivers feels almost radical: children’s games of ‘hide and clap’ yield unwelcome participants, while a spooky jack-in-the-box found on a dusty shelf springs the unexplainable. Wan cut his teeth on the first Saw and 2010’s half-realised Insidious (he will next direct the seventh Fast and Furious), but he’s clearly been hiding an inner Val Lewton, attuned to lingering pauses. And like the wood-grained farmhouse itself – a beautiful piece of production design by Julie Berghoff – The Conjuring has an analogue solidity that makes the terror to come almost unbearable. Joshua Rothkopf
Dir James Wan
Category IIB, 112 mins, opens on Thu Aug 29