"I know they have their believers and fans, and they have their skeptics, as well."
That's James Wan on Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life paranormal investigators who worked on the cases that inspired The Amityville Horror, The Haunted, A Haunting in Connecticut and, yes, The Conjuring, Wan's latest horror film (written by House of Wax writers Chad and Carey Hayes) that hits theaters July 19. Last year I visited the Wilmington, North Carolina set of The Conjuring, and the house that Dawson's Creek and One Tree Hill built has lost some of its wholesome charm.
We were brought to a dark, musty room decorated to the teeth with crumbling furniture, thick spiderwebs, rusting farm equipment and ratty knickknacks that would almost seem forlorn if they weren't so creepy. This was meant to be the cellar of the home once owned by Roger and Carolyn Perron in Harrisville, Rhode Island. The Perrons (played in the film by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their five daughters moved into a farmhouse on hundreds of acres of land called Arnold Estate in 1970, and the family was almost immediately beset by unearthly noises, changes in air compression and inexplicable visions of a dessicated old witch. They called the Warrens (here portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) to the case, and events quickly escalated to disastrous effect.
And yes, you read that right: five daughters, all in the film; producer Rob Cowan told us there was discussion about reducing the number of daughters in the cast to two to be more practical, or perhaps saving money by setting the film in present day instead of the '70s, when Wan countered, "No. If we’re going to tell their story, we have to tell it the way it really happened."
The way it really happened? Of course we'll never know. On a set like this, I suppose it's inevitable that the visiting journalists spent our downtime discussing any paranormally-tinged occurrences we'd experienced. Some of us believed in ghosts and possessions, and some of us scoffed. It's also true of the cast and crew we interviewed - we heard set stories of midnight disturbances, flying plates, tape recorders malfunctioning. Some of the crew believed, some scoffed. But the Warrens? The Warrens believed. Patrick Wilson said of playing Ed, "I try as hard as I can to separate my own beliefs. I’m not a skeptical person anyway. I think I’m a pretty open person, but it’s such a slippery slope that when I’m playing him... because he was such a believer and if people were hecklers in the crowd, he would take them on, one-on-one. He was very passionate about what he believed in."
Ed Warren passed away in 2006, but Lorraine is still alive, and she was actually quite involved in the film. Wilson says, about looking not a whit like Ed Warren, that Lorraine told him, "I look in your eyes and you have that same kindness and that same openness that Ed had." But even before Ed's death, the Harrisville haunting is the case that, well, haunted him decades after it occurred. Producer Tony DeRosa-Grund said, "Ed really had a laser beam focus on this one. He sat down with me and he played the tape for me of his original interview with Carolyn Perron when he went to the farmhouse for the very first time, and it was absolutely chilling. It was either black or white. Either this woman had severe mental problems, which she didn’t, or she was literally scared to death, which she was."
So what frightened Carolyn Perron so deeply that she can still, to this day, barely talk about it? That would be The Conjuring's big bad, Bathsheba the witch. The Conjuring isn't a typical haunted house movie - well, in many ways it is, as far as story construction is concerned - but when we're talking villainous spirits, Bathsheba Sherman is one of a kind. The story goes that Bathsheba was, as the family described her "a godforsaken soul" who worshipped Satan and, according to DeRosa-Grund, "made a pact with the devil to come back as what she thought of as an ever-beautiful, ever-powerful demon in charge of a legion of other entities. Didn’t quite work out that way." In order to fulfill this pact with expedience, Bathsheba hung herself from a tree on Arnold Estate where she lived.
(Let's take a moment to review the poster for The Conjuring, shall we?)
Screenwriter Carey Hayes continued the story, "But prior to that she proclaimed her love for Satan and cursed anyone who would try to take her land, and then, over that course of time from the late 1800s to the present, there has been a phenomenal amount of deaths on what was once that 500 acres." His brother Chad chimed in, "Really unusual deaths, like you'd have a better chance winning the lottery," and the two identical twins began listing the insane deaths that have occurred on Arnold Estate and that we'll presumably see in the movie: "drownings, suicides, hunting accidents, car accidents, people lost in the winter-time."
And all of that is due to Bathsheba. It was a sunny day in Wilmington when we passed Bathsheba in full make-up, and I won't pretend I didn't get a bit of a chill. Carolyn Perron once described Bathsheba as having "a face like a beehive covered in cobwebs with no real features other than crawling vermin," and while modern day make-up technology may not allow for such colorful gore, this witch looked ghastly. You may be surprised, as I was, to discover who was beneath the rotting robes and savage wig: Joseph Bishara, the score composer for The Conjuring, Insidious, Dark Skies and more. He makes a very tall witch.
Bathsheba took a particular interest in Carolyn Perron, tormenting the mother of the family with exceptional verve, and we later see Lili Taylor's harnessed stunt double violently thrown around the room. Taylor said she didn't get a chance to meet Carolyn when she visited the set - and yes, Carolyn Perron and two of her daughters visited this set! They were terrified, as one might imagine. Carolyn also fell and broke her hip on the set, which she maintains is Bathsheba contuing her campaign of persecution.
So at this point, I bet I know what you're thinking. It's what we have all thought over the course of dozens of haunted house movies through the decades. Why didn't the Perrons just pack up their belongings and get the hell out? DeRosa-Grund has an answer for you. "Carolyn was drawn to this property. She bought it almost sight unseen, as close to sight unseen as you can get. She was drawn to it by an ad in the newspaper. Carolyn was drawn to it... and put their whole life savings into buying this property. They were stuck. No one’s going to take a family with all these kids in. They were stuck there, they didn’t have a choice. They had to deal with it. And luckily for them, she found Ed and Lorraine Warren who were really their saviors through all of this."
Ron Livingston had another explanation for the age-old question. Of the scene we'd just watched filmed, he says, "This is a sequence in the third act where the house kind of has some various spirits that are attached to it that haven't left, basically. One of them in particular has taken possession of Lili [Taylor] at this point. And it has actually followed us. You know there's the question in haunted house movies, 'Why don't they just leave?' And in this one we do leave, and one of the things kind of attaches to her and brings her back. So we kind of run screaming in from the motel and try to get her out and take her away to the priest to perform the exorcism. But the spirit won't let her leave the house and at that point it starts to get kinetic. She goes flying down the hallway, spins around and gets dragged down the stairs. And we run down to find her flying around and banging into things. So, pacing wise, if the movie has some build and then all hell breaks loose - you're looking at one of the moments where all hell breaks loose."
You might have noticed that more than anything else - more than the set design (beautiful and horrifying, by Julie Berghoff, who actually built the Perron house onset), more than the direction (everyone, from the producers to the screenwriters to the cast, said they couldn't imagine anyone but James Wan directing this film) - I'm focusing on the ostensibly true story on which The Conjuring is based. And that's not only because I think, true or not, it's a fascinating story, but because that, more than anything else, is what sets The Conjuring apart from its contemporaries. The amount of research, the attention to detail and determination to honor the story as it was told by the Perrons, is unlike any other "Based on a True Story" haunted house movie I can think of. DeRosa-Grund said, "Lorraine is very happy with the story and the script and she is not one, if it diverges too much from center, then she wouldn’t be behind this. And she’s behind this 100%."
During our visit to the set, the scripts and the folding chairs all read "The Warren Files," and since The Conjuring is based on only one of those files, it almost sounds like they're gearing up for a franchise, doesn't it? Wilson said of playing Ed Warren in future films, "I don’t know who else would play him now. Vera and I wouldn’t have signed on for one not knowing that they didn’t want to do more. That’s just the nature of the beast."
The Conjuring hasn't been released in Houston yet. I see it in a couple of weeks and I can't wait. I know Devin really liked it, as did Brian. But from what I saw onset, and in the trailers since, and knowing that it's rated R for scares (even though Wan was hoping for PG-13 when we spoke to him last year), I can't say I'd mind the idea of a franchise. Telling haunted house stories from the point of view of the paranormal investigators - and not just any paranormal investigators, but real ones, one of whom is still alive and eager to continue telling her story - is a unique approach to the same old ghost flicks. I dig that approach.
And no matter what, I have a feeling I'll at least love the way The Conjuring looks. Wan took a break from directing the chaos to tell us, "I want to make a classical period film. I want to capture that with the production design, the wardrobe and the photography. If nothing else, I know this will be a beautiful-looking film!"