Well, you can pretty much rely on James Wan to press the scare button every time now. Granted, Saw wasn't actually scary, just horrible and nasty and sadistic and great fun, but Dead Silence did the job efficiently enough, and of course Insidious had me leaving lights on all night up to a week after I'd seen it, and I still haven't dared go back for a rewatch. I've no idea how I'll manage with the forthcoming Insidious sequel! But in the meantime, he's made another horror film that's genuinely scary - not gory or explicit, just can't-look terrifying - and which had me covering my eyes for great chunks of the time. Which is precisely as it should be: so many horror movies aren't ever close to mildly chilling, let alone boxer-browning scary, that it's a delight to find one where your hand spends half the running time covering your eyes.
As with countless haunted house movies, from The Amityville Horror onwards, The Conjuring centres on a family moving into a spooky old house in which Something Unspeakable happened years ago, and whatever caused it is still there. The Perron family (led by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor - the latter having already done haunted house duties with Jan De Bont's noisy but ineffectual remake of The Haunting) have barely settled in when they're assaulted by the full panoply of loud noises, spectral appearances, bird strikes and physical attacks. Enter paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga), who quickly deduce the what and the why - but how can they get rid of it?
It's based on the true case files of the Warrens (thus giving it a lovely 1971 atmosphere and setting that also happily removes Google, email and cellphones from the drama at a stroke), but in truth I'd have been just as scared if it was a work of pure fiction. Like Insidious, The Conjuring combines the scary paranormal realm of demons, ghosts, spirits and curses with a recognisable domestic world we're all familiar with. Hardly any of us have spent time in Castle Dracula or the old abandoned mental hospital, but we've all moved into a new home at some point, we've all heard strange noises in the dead of night, and (especially when children) been convinced there's someone else in a darkened bedroom, under the bed or behind the door, and The Conjuring brilliantly brings those fears to life. Its approach may not be particularly subtle - it's basically yelling Boo! repeatedly in your face accompanied by Joseph Bishara's atonal score - but it's still incredibly effective and made me jump every single time.
In the end, it's perhaps not quite as chilling as Insidious, but that's mainly because it hasn't yet wormed its way back into my mind late at night and left me wondering if there's someone or something in the kitchen. Like that film, the final act is perhaps a slight step down from the rest of the film - here the Warrens' final desperate tactic for releasing the demon's hold on its new host feels very slightly off - and in this instance I'd have liked far more use of that disturbing evil-looking doll that's on the poster but which features only in the introductory sequence (which would make a freaky enough short by itself) and a few moments in the middle. Yet it almost seems churlish to knock a few marks off for that, when so much excellent work is done in the first hour, and by the end I'd still been put through the wringer more thoroughly and remorselessly than anything since Sinister. Terrific stuff.