The premise of idyllic family moving into a haunted house has gotten a bit stale in recent years. With sequel after sequel of Paranormal Activity and films like Sinister, things can get a bit wearing. Don’t make the mistake of bundling The Conjuring in with those, however. This film takes its cue from its setting – the 1970’s, and harks back to the horror classics of old while retaining the best of the new. One parts Exorcist, one part Amityville horror, a sprinkling of Evil Dead and The Orphanage with even the slightest hint of The Birds, this film is a love letter to those that came before it, and it heartily succeeds where so many films that claim similar ancestor’s fail – it doesn’t feel derivative.

The proper story, after a clever diversion, starts with the claim that it is based on the true story of Ed and Lorrain Warren, two supernatural investigators, and their efforts to help the Perron family deal with the malicious spirits inhabiting the house they have moved into. The beginning is slow and does a wonderful job of establishing the cast, ensuring that they are substantial enough for us to care about their fate later in the film. This is helped significantly by the solid performances delivered by each of the main cast, allowing us to believe they are a real family in suffering.

It isn’t too long before things start to go awry and when things go bad, they go bad. The scares here strike a good balance between suspense and horror, between jumps and the unsettling. Director James Wan takes a smart approach, making sure the scares stay hidden and implied for the longest time. He knows when to leave it up to your imagination and when to thrust the grotesque in your face.

For example, throughout the first half of the film, a child’s game of ‘hide and clap’ is used to great effect, so much so you feel a shiver every time you hear the sound of two hands coming together. Likewise, there is a moment of brilliance as one of the daughters believes someone is lurking in the shadow behind her bedroom door that will stalk you as you leave the theater and won’t let you forget it as you’re lying in bed that evening.

Things escalate quickly, whilst characters continue to develop and become more involved, culminating in a mad and unrelenting last half hour that leaves you little time to breath, let alone realize you’ve had your hands clenching the armrests for the last thirty minutes.

Wan uses the twisting and secretive space of the vast old house to its maximum, with no room missing out on its share of the action. The 70’s setting is never overplayed, rarely more overt than the regrettable haircuts, but the sense of location in the film is overwhelming. In a good way, that is – the creaks and croaks of the house provide a constant backdrop of potential terror.

The soundtrack is a great companion to the visual eeriness, alternating between restrained tension pieces and larger, bombastic pieces reminiscent of classic horror soundtracks. This praise isn’t restricted to the fantastic score and selection of music tracks though, the sound design in general is pitch perfect.

The one criticism I have of the movie is that between myriad influences, the large cast (there are 5 daughters alone), the various haunting spirits and the elaborate setting it can feel like it’s bitten off more than it can chew. There are often multiple strands of story going on, with various daughters of both the Perron and Warren family, spread across multiple rooms, dealing with numerous spirits. Particularly during the climax there is so much going on that keeping track of everything that’s going on is a challenge.

As this is my only major complaint, fear not, as the confusion this creates is even somewhat effective in aligning you with the characters that have no clue what’s going on at points either. James Wan and the team know how to make good horror and they have surpassed themselves here. The Conjuring is the best horror film of the year; whether you prefer the old fright favourites or the modern brand of scares, this has something for everyone. Days later and I’m still checking under my bed for rotting witches…

P.S. Who buys, or even builds, a doll that looks as goddamned creepy as that? Would you ever give that to your child? Hell no.