"I'm growing up and moving on."
James Wan is joking when he says this, explaining how The Conjuring is the first film he's made without his longtime collaborator Leigh Whannell, and without a cameo by Billy the Puppet, the icon from the film that launched Wan's career, Saw. But as The Conjuring prepares to arrive in theaters next month, it's clear Wan wasn't really joking at all. The Australian-born enfant terrible, who launched the entire "torture porn" sub genre when he brought Saw to the Sundance Film Festival at the ripe age of 26, has spent a decade building his name on blood, guts and death. But with both The Conjuring and Insidious 2 coming this summer, and production on Fast & Furious 7 starting, Wan is rising fast and in a lot of different directions… and The Conjuring wants to be first to prove that he doesn't need torture or creepy puppets to entertain the hell out of you.
Though it's arriving with an R-rating (on the set the producers said they were aiming for a PG-13), the 1970s-set, based-on-a-true-story The Conjuring is billing itself as a subtler, more character-driven riff on horror, a tale of possession and things that go bump in the night that's not so much about the tormented family, but the people who come in to save them. Ed and Lorraine Warren were a married pair of paranormal investigators who handled dozens of cases, including the possession at the center of The Amityville Horror, and were described on set as a kind of Nick and Nora Charles of ghost stories. Casting Patrick Wilson (of Wan's Insidious but also an Emmy and Tony nominee) and Vera Farmiga (of TV's Bates Motel) in itself is enough to promise a kind of classy horror story, and Wan cites The Exorcist and the original 1963 The Haunting as references for the mood and tone. "I think it’s a more mature film that anything I’ve done," Wan says.
Last spring, on the Wilmington, N.C. set, The Conjuring was going by the title The Warren Files, which practically screamed "start of a franchise" (Wilson confirmed "Vera and I wouldn’t have signed on for one not knowing that they didn’t want to do more.") And the dead-simple plot of The Conjuring wouldn't be hard to replicate, especially given the dozens and dozens of cases the Warrens handled. For this one, it starts with a witch named Bathsheba who made a pact with the devil to return as an all-powerful demon-- "didn't quite work out that way," cracks producer Tony DeRosa-Grund. The tree where Bathsheba hung herself, a gnarled, hand-shaped black monstrosity which production designer Julie Berghoff calls "the most iconic part of the film for me," was emblazoned on many on-set logos, and is featured in the film's unsettling trailers like this one below:
Decades after Bathsheba hangs herself from the tree, the Perron family moves into her Rhode Island farmhouse, and the story from there is familiar-- unexplained happenings, odd behavior, and an inability to leave the house that's driving you crazy. Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston play parents Carolyn and Roger Perron, and a bevy of up-and-coming talents play the Perrons' five daughters, including White House Down's Joey King and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn's Mackenzie Foy. Though some producers suggested he trim the 5 daughters down to 3 to make them more manageable for the film, Wan insisted on keeping the original five, and all of the Perron daughters-- now in their 40s and 50s-- visited the Wilmington, N.C. set. According to producer Rob Cowan, daughter Cindy had "quite a reaction" to the sight of the film's witch, who is a stunt man in makeup. "She really said that was exactly what she looked like."
By the time of the scene we watched them shoot last April, Bathsheba was nowhere to be seen on the outside, but had come to possess mother Carolyn (it was day 38 of 40 of the shoot, and with Wan shooting chronologically, we were nearing a big finale that nobody wanted to tell us much about). In the scene Lili Taylor is walking down the stairs into her cellar to investigate-- classic horror movie mistake. To guide her way Taylor's character, Carolyn Perron, lights a series of matches, allowing them to burn down to her fingers before dropping them and plunging herself back into darkness. Face lit only by the match, Taylor looks terrified and on edge… but it's only going to get worse for her. When Taylor was done the crew began setting up wires for the stuntwoman, who would be flung unwillingly around the room as the witch Bathsheba possesses Carolyn's body. As the Perrons themselves recalled it, the witch took special interest in the mother; Livingston met the real Roger Perron and explains, "He thought she [the witch] kind of had a thing for him and wanted to get rid of his wife, you know?" An image of Carolyn mid-possession, dangling above the cellar, is on the next page.