At the beginning it seems we are going to get just another re-hash of Amityville. Its the early 1970s and a young family have just moved into a large house in New England. Things go bump in the dark, the clocks all stop at the same time every night and a sinister presence in the cellar is beckoning.
What sets The Conjuring apart though is that the filmmakers have bothered to invest in some character development, most notably in the depiction of the husband and wife team who are hired to clean the house of it's evil spirits. This is actually the same real-life couple who investigated the Amytivlle case.
The scare factor slowly gets ratcheted up, with everything from bodies being flung around the room a la Paranormal Activity, creaky doors opening and slamming shut, a particularly horrendous looking doll being used as a demonic vessel, and other spooky trappings, some of which are quite original and very effective.
The Conjuring works so well because Melbourne trained director James Wan builds tension by knowing exactly how much to show you and when to show it. He isn't bludgeoning you with gore or going over the top with CGI. Mostly it's just great sound engineering, effective editing and some very clever cinematography, including some great tracking shots through the labyrinthine house interiors and a wee bit of 70s style zoom ins and pan outs.
To give you some idea of how well this film is being received, it was originally going to be released in the States in January, a traditionally quiet month at the box office. Warner Brothers did some test screenings and the reaction was so off the charts that they re-scheduled the release for mid-summer, the busiest box office period. Since then word of mouth has built so much that a sequel has already been secured, even before this film's release.
Given the well-worn tropes of the genre, and the amount of parodies that have been made in recent years, Wan has done a great job to create something genuinely chilling and relentlessly tense. He's more than ably assisted by a top tech team and a formidable cast. The scares culminate to a harrowing crescendo, all the more powerful because we have become emotionally involved in the characters.
Chances are this will be the best horror film you've seen for a long time and are likely to see for a long while yet.