Writer-director-cinematographer Calvin Morie McCarthy previously made An Amityville Poltergeist – though, to be fair, it was called both No Sleep and Don’t Sleep before the tacky cash-in release title. It seems he’s interested in sleep-related spookiness, because this follow-up – with its equally opportunist release title – is one of a raft of films about the phenomenon of sleep paralysis and related urban legends. One of the creepier ideas in the documentary The Nightmare is that if a sufferer of SP tells someone else that they have this recurring dream of being frozen in bed with a dark figure looming over them the person who’s told the story might start having the dreams too. It’s perhaps related that since that documentary came out, maybe a dozen fiction films have explored the idea – Mara, Slumber, The Harbinger, etc. So this is just the latest iteration of the nightmare.
Given the title’s attempt to latch on to the Conjuring franchise, it’s odd that McCarthy’s apparent narrative model is The Haunting. Heroine Wanda Fulcia (Victoria Grace Borrello) has an argument with her brother and sister-in-law, with whom she’s lodging after a divorce, that’s exactly like the one Eleanor has with her sister in that story – and similarly escapes a suffocating situation by ‘borrowing’ a car and driving off to be a volunteer in a pseudoscientific experiment. Here, Dr Richard Pretorious (Steve Larkin) – there’s waffle about the name sounding familiar – is running a study of sleep paralysis in a decommissioned school (a decent location, reasonably well-used), which brings in a clutch of other varied characters it doesn’t do to get too attached to. One is called Theo, but he’s a guy played by Tim Coyle, while Margo (Jax Kellington) is the equivalent of Theo from The Haunting of Hill House only tattooed and sexy rather than a lesbian.
At the getting-to-know-each-other session, Wanda reasonably objects that she doesn’t suffer from sleep paralysis and Dr P unreassuringly counters that he doesn’t mind because he can instil the condition in them all through hypnosis. That this is a bad idea goes without saying. And after some whispery set-up, everyone starts being bothered by a night hag (Chynna Rae Shurts) who is slightly comical-looking but also sometimes properly scary. Characters get got by the monster and disappear from the facility, there’s the usual contrivance about confiscated phones (and car keys) to keep everyone in danger and out of touch with outside help, and things escalate reasonably well until a twist ending you’d have had to nod off at the end of Act One not to see coming. Like An Amityville Poltergeist – a lopsided film which had one genuinely disturbing idea – Conjuring the Beyond gets a bit cutesy with its homages to horror classics and has some makeshift performances – Larkin is as British as Richard Johnson, but a burly rugby-player type oddly cast as a boffin – but it’s also sincere, low-key creepy and occasionally strikes sparks.