The name "James Wan" is gaining more and more acclaim; the man who brought the world Saw (the original one, not those crazy sequels), the Kevin Bacon cult-hit Death Sentence, and the micro-budget hit Insidious ($54 million on a $1.5 million budget) is back with The Conjuring, a new ghost story about a pair of real-life ghost hunters who are played in the film by Insidious star Patrick Wilson and The Departed star Vera Farmiga.
Wan premiered footage of The Conjuring for the first time at New York Comic-Con, and it arguably became the surprise hit of the convention - which is saying something, considering that NYCC 2012 also featured high-profile horror flicks like the Carrie and Evil Dead reamakes. Read on for our breakdown of The Conjuring footage and panel - and a breakdown of why this might be the scariest movie of 2013.
THE CONJURING: THE FOOTAGE
The first footage screened was the forthcoming trailer for The Conjuring, which sets up the basic premise of a family - two parents (played by Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) and five kids - being terrorized by the angry spirit of a dead witch, complete with hair-raising sequences like a ghost hag pouncing onto an unsuspecting victim, and the usual (but no less effective) jump scares and switched perspective tactics. An end scene with Vera Farmiga's character trying to use a small mirror to spot the witch was very startling, despite its clichéd nature.
CLIP 1: HAND-CLAP GAME (DAY)
The second footage was a clip from the film, showcasing a sequence in which Lili Taylor, as the mother of the haunted family, engages in a special clapping game with her daughter. A version of dry-land "Marco Polo," Taylor’s character is blindfolded while the children hide; she then has to locate the hidden child (blindfold on), in the space of three claps provided by the child upon request. The twist in the scene comes when the claps lead Taylor to a remote room in the house; ghostly hands appear from within the armoire and lead Taylor's character to think she’s found her daughter – but when her daughter suddenly appears behind her, Taylor (and we, the audience) is left startled and terrified. What was remarkable about the scene was its effectiveness when A)it takes place in daylight, and B) it uses shot angles, silence and simple sound to achieve its scares.
CLIP 2: HAND-CLAP GAME (NIGHT)
Cut to a later scene, at night this time, and Taylor is disrupted from her bedtime preparation by the sound of her girls playing the clapping game. However, the scene quickly takes a left turn when Taylor steps into the hallway, only to see every picture hung on the wall suddenly slam to the ground. Undaunted, Taylor goes downstairs to confront the intruder (who she still assumes is human), and we are then taken along for a slow-burn sequence, following Taylor through the darkened house, as she is beckoned by the phantom handclaps. By the time she arrives at a basement door (left ominously open), the audience was in a frenzy; but Wan once again upends convention, having Taylor suddenly gain that horror movie common sense so many characters seem to lack (do NOT go in the dark scary place) - only to have the door slam shut in her face, trapping her at the top of the basement stairs in pitch blackness. The scene ends with Taylor striking a solitary match, in the dark, only to cry out in terror as the ghost hands reappear right behind her head.
THE CONJURING: PANEL & TEST SCREENINGS
From what I've seen The Conjuring is even more stripped-down and practical in its execution than Insidious was. In all of the described footage, the scares were created through smart sequencing and camerawork, with clip 2 especially evidencing Wan's maturing skill as a horror director - a genre that the director himself confessed he can only play in for so long, before moving on to other pastures (like sci-fi or superhero films).
Horror fans were pleased to hear Wan talk passionately about the need for old-school horror - '70s and '80s-era films he grew up with - and his desire to make The Conjuring a sort of stylistic throwback that relies on actual filmmaking technique and makeup over CGI effects and such.
In attendance at the panel were people connected to the actual events the film is based on: a girl who grew up next door to the haunted house in question, and a woman who claimed to be the liaison between the Warrens and the imperiled family, the Perrons. After that, Wan and cast members in attendance - Wilson, Taylor and Livingston - shared anecdotes, the most memorable being Wilson's account of he and Farmiga's trip to the Warrens' home (Ed has passed away, Lorraine is still alive), and the discovery of their haunted objects room - which is literally a room behind their house where supposedly haunted or possessed objects are stored. One person apparently touch a possessed doll in the room, and died shortly thereafter. Creepy stuff.
Outside of NYCC, The Conjuring is making bigger waves: according to Variety, the film is achieving monumental scores in test screenings:
Since the summer, "Conjuring" has been generating virtually unheard-of positive responses from two test screenings... The move to July -- a huge vote of confidence for "The Conjuring" -- was made in direct response to those screenings: The film scored in the low-90% range when averaging the number of auds who rated the film either "excellent" or "very good." Concerning men under 25, the pic scored even higher, just below 100%.
That "move to July" mention was addressed by Wan himself during the NYCC panel; he is surprised as anyone that Warner Bros. has now placed The Conjuring in a July 2013 slot - the prime battleground of summer blockbusters (as opposed to an early year release, when things are slower). Clearly the studio believes what test audiences (including the NYCC crowd) are already saying: that this horror flick is going to be something special.
However, it seems that every year we get presented with a new horror film that comes with the quote line from some random viewer, "Scariest movie I've seen in years!" (this year it's Sinister) - so what makes The Conjuring worth any of the current hype surrounding it? From what I've seen, the answer is as simple as good old-fashioned movie-making know-how. James Wan knows how to scare us.
Keep an eye out, as trailers and other promotional materials for The Conjuring are sure to drop any day now. Then you'll be able to judge the hype for yourself.
The Conjuring will be in theaters in July 2013.
[Conjuring NYCC Panel Image Courtesy of Geeks of Doom]