A little silence goes a long way in a horror film. Those disquieting minutes right before terror strikes can provide an agonizing prelude to the awful events that follow. This is director James Wan's sweet spot.
The man behind the first Saw film and Insidious understands how to amplify moments of unspoken dread until they become nearly unbearable for an audience afflicted with anticipation. Wan's latest, The Conjuring , is even more dedicated to the buildup of horror than his previous films. It delivers a haunted-house narrative so immersed in the protracted fear of its characters that each long camera take feels possessed.
Set in Rhode Island circa 1971, the film focuses intensely on the Perron clan, who've just plunged their life savings into a lakeside two-story abode with a devilish past. All the creaking floorboards and ghostly whispers clearly indicate that this particular structure has blood on its hands.
A few genuinely riveting ghost sequences later (including the basement scene to end all basement scenes), Perron matriarch Carolyn (Lily Taylor) tracks down a husband-and-wife team (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) that specializes in expelling ghouls.
The setup may sound familiar, but the execution is harrowing. Wan favors wide-angle compositions devoid of close-ups, allowing the viewer's eye to wander from foreground to background, attempting to pinpoint the origin of the next jump-scare. This makes every corner of the frame a threat and the audience a kind of surrogate victim at all times.
From here, The Conjuring only becomes loonier as it dances toward an inevitable tango with the devil. Part of the film's sadistic charm stems from merely surviving the onslaught of stress produced by its near-biblical buildup of generational trauma, something that eventually explodes in an earthquake of horror iconography during the finale.
The resulting tremors are nothing short of bone-chilling. The hairs on the back of my neck are still recovering.
Broken : An 11-year-old girl is forced to grow up quickly when she discovers a neighbor abusing another child and must face the consequences of telling the truth. Co-starring the great Tim Roth. Runs July 22 through 25 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park.
The Conjuring : Ghosts and demons haunt a large suburban family who just moved into a rickety Rhode Island home with a dark past. It's directed by horror maestro James Wan ( Insidious , Saw ). See our review on Page 28.
Dolphins : This beautiful, Academy Award-nominated IMAX film, screening at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park, explores the world of dolphins from the Bahamas to the seas of Patagonia.
Focus on San Diego: This collection of features, documentaries and short films made by local filmmakers runs July 19 through 21 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park. Get details at digitalgym.org.
Girl Most Likely : Kristin Wiig brings her patented self-deprecating humor to this story about a failed New York playwright forced to spend time with her overbearing mother (Annette Benning) and start anew.
Drew: The Man Behind the Poster : Documentary about the iconic movie-poster artist Drew Struzan, whose work on the Star Wars films, among others, has become legendary.
Only God Forgives : Seeped in neon reds and yellows, this psychedelic nightmare from director Nicolas Winding Refn ( Drive ) follows an American expat (Ryan Gosling) as he attempts to avenge his brother's murder in Thailand.
Le Petit Soldat : An early Jean-Luc Godard film about a French journalist who becomes embroiled in an espionage plot in Geneva that threatens both his safety and ideological prowess. Screens for one week at the Ken Cinema. See our review on Page 28.
Reds 2 : Bruce Willis and his aged assassins once again try to defend their lawn chairs from shadowy government forces and international terrorists.
R.I.P.D .: Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds play undead police officers protecting Earth from ghouls and goblins attempting to take over the world. Hilarity ensues.
Still Mine : Local authorities stymie an elderly couple's dream of building their final home, resulting in a David and Goliath story set in rural New Brunswick.
Turbo : A normal garden snail finds that a freak accident has given him some unexpected powers in the speed department, allowing him to compete in the Indy 500.
Un Flic : Jean Pierre-Melville's final film follows a professional gang of thieves (led by Richard Crenna) as they attempt to outwit a tenacious policeman (Alain Delon) and score one last big job. Screens for one week at the Ken Cinema. See our review on Page 28.
One Time Only
Drop Dead Gorgeous : Dark comedy reigns in this devious story of a small-town beauty who produces deadly results. Screens at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 17, at Stone Brewing World Bistro and Gardens in Escondido.
The Empire Strikes Back : Luke, Leia and Han continue their battle against Darth Vader in what most fans think is the best and most complex Stars Wars film. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 17, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma.
We Have a Pope : Italian auteur Nani Moretti satirizes the intricate process of choosing the new pope with this fable about panic, doubt and newfound faith. Screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 17, at Scripps Ranch Library.
Serenity : The cult television show from Joss Whedon spawned this 2005 sci-fi western about a group of intergalactic roughnecks being pursued by assassins. Presented by Forty-Foot Films, it screens at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 18, at Reading Gaslamp Cinemas.
Back to the Future : Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) takes the Delorean back in time to the 1950s in order to ensure his family's future happiness. Presented by Forty-Foot Films, it screens at 7 p.m. Friday, July 19, at Reading Gaslamp Cinemas.
Indiscreet : Cary Grant woos Ingrid Bergman in this comedy romance from director Stanly Donen ( Singin' in the Rain ). Screens at 8:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, July 18 and 19, at Cinema Under the Stars in Mission Hills.
Brave : Scottish folklore gets the Pixar treatment in this action-packed adventure story about a princess who must save her mother from a wretched curse. Screens at 8 p.m. Friday, July 19, at Oceanside Beach Elementary School.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show : It wouldn't be midnight on the weekend without some classic Time Warp action. Join the madness on Saturday, July 20, at the Ken Cinema.
The Missing Piece: Mona Lisa, Her Thief, The True Story : A sprawling documentary about Vincent Peruggia, the man who stole the Mona Lisa in 1911, and the consequences of the investigation on his own family. Co-presented by the Timken Museum, it screens at 6 p.m. Saturday, July 20, at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.
Clerks : Jay and Silent Bob, where it all began. Presented by Forty-Foot Films, it screens at 7 p.m. Saturday, July 20, at Reading Gaslamp Cinemas.
Loose Canons : An aspiring writer returns home to the Italian countryside from Rome to drop a bomb on his family, only to have his thunder stolen by his brother. Presented in conjunction with the San Diego Italian Film Festival at 7 p.m. Saturday, July 20, at La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas.
Petunia : This dramedy delves into the lives of a dysfunctional family defined by repressed feelings and salacious secrets. Presented with the short film Remember to Breath by FilmOut at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 20, at the Birch North Park Theatre.
The African Queen : Watch Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart ooze chemistry in this adventure story about a riverboat captain who falls in love with a missionary. Screens at 8:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, July 20 and 21, at Cinema Under the Stars in Mission Hills.
Ghostbusters : Beware the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man! Screens at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, July 21, at Arclight La Jolla.
Springsteen and I : See The Boss like you've never seen him before: up close and personal. Screens at 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 22, at various local theatres. Visit fathomevents.com for details.
Shun Li and the Poet : When a Chinese woman meets a Yugoslavian fisherman in Italy they quickly develop a unique friendship. Screens at 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 23, at Hervey Branch Library in Point Loma.
Chimpanzee : Tim Allen narrates this documentary about a 3-month-old chimpanzee separated from his troop and adopted by a fully grown male. Screens at 10 a.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, July 23 and 24, at Reading Grossmont and Town Square Cinemas.
(500) Days of Summer : Love is hard, so very hard in the case of these two star-crossed millennials (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel). Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 24, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma.
Monty Python and the Hold Grail : The King Arthur legend gets some serious revisionist treatment by John Cleese and company. Screens at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 24, at Stone Brewing World Bistro and Garden in Escondido.
Moonrise Kingdom : Wes Anderson's divine story of runaway young love has an all-star cast that includes Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray and Edward Norton. Screens at 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 24, at San Diego Public Library in Mission Valley.
A Hijacking : This thrilling drama depicts negotiations surrounding the seizure of a Danish vessel by Somali pirates and the survival of the sailors onboard.
The Body : When a cadaver goes missing from the morgue, a policeman must piece together an expanding mystery of murder and deception. Screens through July 18 at Digital Gym Cinema.
Grown Ups 2 : Adam Sandler, Chris Rock and Kevin James return for another round of juvenile debauchery in this sequel to the 2010 comedy.
Pacific Rim : From the mind of Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro: The world is under attack by reptilian monsters, so mankind resorts to building gigantic robots as the last line of defense.
The Way, Way Back : A 14-year-old boy finds self-worth during a summer vacation with his mother (Toni Collette) and her combative new boyfriend (Steve Carell).
Yellowstone : The next entry in the Fleet's 40th Anniversary Fan Favorite Film Festival showcases the beauty and geothermal activity of the famed national park. Screens through July 18 at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
20 Feet From Stardom : Backup singers for today's superstars finally take center stage in this music documentary featuring a range of inspirational stories about artistic endurance and passion.
Despicable Me 2 : Gru (Steve Carell) and his army of minions attempt to transcend their roles as villains and save the world in this sequel to the popular 2010 animated film.
Hannah Arendt : A biopic about the philosopher who wrote a controversial series of articles about the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker .
I'm So Excited! : Pedro Almodóvar returns to more playful terrain in this racy comedy about a malfunctioning airplane packed with hysterical characters on the verge of nervous breakdowns.
Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain : Filmed at a sold-out performance at Madison Square Garden during a 2012 concert tour, this documentary showcases the comedian's brash style and formidable presence.
The Lone Ranger : The masterminds behind Pirates of the Caribbean hope to find similar success with this mega-budget adaptation of the classic Western hero (Armie Hammer) and his mystical sidekick (Johnny Depp).
The Heat : Yet another riff on the classic buddy comedy, this time starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy as polar-opposite cops tasked with capturing a brutal drug lord. From Bridesmaids director Paul Feig.
Unfinished Song : A bitter curmudgeon (Terrence Stamp) is encouraged by his wife (Vanessa Redgrave) to join a local seniors choir and find his inner song in this charming comedic drama from director Paul Andrew Williams.
White House Down : Yippy-ki-yay, Magic Mike! Channing Tatum does his best John McClane impersonation when terrorists storm the White House and take the president (Jamie Foxx) hostage. Helmed by disaster-movie-director extraordinaire Roland Emmerich ( Independence Day ).
Monsters University : Professional frighteners and quibbling buddies Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) are back for Pixar's first-ever prequel set during their wild college days.
Much Ado About Nothing : The Avengers director Joss Whedon steps out of his comfort zone and updates the Bard's classically romantic skirmish of wits with this jazzy black-and-white ensemble piece.
World War Z : The zombie apocalypse is in full swing as Brad Pitt attempts to save the world from certain demise. It's based on the popular graphic novel by Max Brooks.
The East : Brit Marling leads an impressive cast of indie-film regulars, including Ellen Paige and Alexander Skarsgård, in this story about a covert eco-terrorist group aiming for high-profile corporate targets. Ends July 18 at Hillcrest Cinemas.
Man of Steel : Director Zach Snyder ( 300 , Watchmen ) attempts yet another reboot of the Superman origin story with Henry Cavill sporting the famous tights and Amy Adams cracking wise as Lois Lane.
This is the End : It's the end of the world as we know it, and the Judd Apatow reunion tour feels just fine. Directed by Seth Rogen, this comedy apocalypse is sure to include multiple plumes of ganja smoke.
The Internship : Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson try to re-train themselves in the digital age with a Google internship. Prepare yourself for Lewinsky jokes.
Before Midnight : Almost two decades after Richard Linklater teamed up with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy on the romantic fantasy Before Sunrise , the trio comes together for the final film of the trilogy. Jessie and Celine aren't as young as they used to be, and that makes it the best of all of them.
Now You See Me : Four illusionists—Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco—pull off amazing heists against the 1 percent and give the money to the rest of us.
Star Trek: Into Darkness : The sequel to J.J. Abrams' rollicking reboot feels more like a summer blockbuster than a vital part of the Trek universe. Still, it's always good to see Benedict Cumberbatch on the big screen.
The Great Gatsby : Baz Luhrmann, who made Moulin Rouge , takes on the American literary classic. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jay Gatsby in this tale of class warfare.
Rocky Mountain Express: The IMAX theater at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center was recently overhauled. This latest entry takes viewers through the Canadian Rockies without leaving San Diego.
Cosmic Collisions : So, that asteroid that might smash into Earth in 20 years is much bigger than previously thought? Awesome. This new IMAX movie at the Reuben H. Fleet looks at what happens when things bash into each other in outer space. On the bright side, if we go the way of the dinosaurs, at least future species will have a new source of fossil fuels.
Flight of the Butterflies: It turns out Monarch butterflies are much like SDSU students—every year, thousands of them head to Mexico. This IMAX film captures their beautiful trip. The butterflies, that is.
To the Arctic 3-D : Cute-animal-movie alert No. 2. Meryl Streep narrates this new IMAX movie about a mama polar bear and her two cubs.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: The camp classic continues its ongoing run, Fridays at midnight at La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas.