When James Wan arrived on day one of photography for The Conjuring 2, something a bit unexpected was waiting for him: a priest blessing the set. “When you make movies like this, you never know if creepy things are going to happen and so having a priest come on set and give it some positive energy is not a bad thing,” he says. “I think he was an acquaintance of the Warrens.”
The Warrens are the real life paranormal investigators (yes, the ones most famously associated with “The Amityville Horror”) whose cases Wan has turned into the mega-successful supernatural horror franchise The Conjuring. The second installment, which opens June 10th, focuses on the terrifying case of The Enfield Poltergeist. This time Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) travel to England to help a single mother (Frances O’Connor) and her four kids who are being terrorized by a demonic spirit. When one of the daughters, Janet (played by the talented Madison Wolfe), is finally possessed, the demon turns on the Warrens and things get complicated. And terrifying.
For a film 134 minutes long, Wan wastes no time getting straight to the scares. Building suspense and delivering on it is, after all, what makes Wan the fan favorite in scary movies right now. But for all the scares, there are some good laughs, too. Jokes are dotted throughout the movie that pull your guard down just in time to be scared senseless again. “I think it’s important in movies like this to have moments of levity, because there’s only so much tension you can have, to keep the audience at the edge of their seat, without releasing it,” Wan says. “I learned this firsthand: if you don’t give the audience something to laugh about, they will find something to laugh at. I’d rather it be intentionally on purpose.”
Ask a horror fan what they love about horror movies and you’ll almost always hear the word “adrenaline.” Wan understands the social aspect of that: “One thing I’ve noticed when you watch the audience, when they’re at the edge of their seat and then something jumps out, they freak out and they scream, and then it’s usually followed by that nervous laughter amongst themselves, right? In the communal setting, it’s really interesting to see that laughter generally follows after a really scary moment.” They say opposites attract, and you see proof in The Conjuring 2: the stomach-knotting close-up of Janet’s face when she’s hiding under her bed sheets sticks with you as much as the moment when the Bee Gees “I Started A Joke” starts playing and the rigid audience melts into laughter. It’s fun and it’s scary, just like a horror movie should be.
But Wan hopes scary movies can get back to where they used to be in the critic’s eye and the major studio’s, too. If we’re strictly talking numbers, horror doesn’t need to be explained or defended, but to get it back to the status it held when The Exorcist (1973) and Poltergeist (1982) was seen by virtually everyone, not just horror fans, that will take a shift. “Horror right now is thriving in the independent world. I think that’s great and I think we want to continue to foster a great independent mentality with horror filmmaking. I just want to see a bit more with better studio horror films,” Wan says. “It just allows the filmmaker to craft the movie with a bit more support. They can do so much more.”
For a genre that many, including Wan, believe is a great temperature taker for society, an outlet for social commentary and a general reflection of where we’re at, you’d think that wouldn’t seem like such a stretch. “Dawn of the Dead, for example, is a classic commentary on our capitalistic consumerism society, right? We’re like zombies walking through a shopping mall. There are so many great things that get said in horror films,” Wan says. “Horror lets you go really far out and people cut it a lot of slack in that they know it’s something where you can actually cross the boundaries and touch on a lot of subject matters. Other movies might be more apprehensive about crossing those lines.”
Social commentary is not where he starts with a film, though, he says. His greatest desire is always simply to craft a movie that moviegoers will love. Based on his trajectory over the past 12 years, you can see he’s been delivering over and over again. Crossing from horror into thriller to direct Furious 7 (2015), he’ll be jumping lines again to direct DC Comic’s Aquaman in 2018. But horror seems to be where his heart is. “I will say this and this is all I’ll say. I think horror fans are probably the most respectful fans out there and all those in the fandom world. Even though they’re treated by the general public as outcasts generally speaking, I would take horror fans over any other fans in the fandom world,” he insists.
Wan is not disconnected from them, either. Active on social media, he listens to his fans and can apply their feedback to future installments in a franchise. He wants to know what they found funny, what they liked and didn’t like. For scary movies, though, it always comes down to the scares. The other movies he cites, he cites for how scary they were. “I’d like to point out that when The Exorcist first came out it made so many people go back to church. That movie scared the crap out of them that it sent them back to church.”
You can’t deny the soulfulness that exists in Wan’s films; an underlying struggle that is always fascinating to watch play out, whether you’re a horror fan or not. That soulfulness can be in the form of personal morality (Saw) or spirituality and religion (The Conjuring) – there’s always something that feels deeper if you want to explore past the jumps and screams. “Generally when you deal with supernatural horror, it tends to be of another realm,” Wan says. “Therefore it tends to be more spiritual. Therefore the overall picture means that it’s more a classic struggle between good and bad and light and darkness. If it’s light and darkness, it always stems back to the classic struggle of God versus the devil. Right? Because of that, supernatural horror tends to lend itself to religious belief.”
As for Wan?
“I was raised [religious],” he says. “I like to think that I’m spiritual these days, but probably not as much as my family would like me to be.” When the supernatural is your day job, I guess that’s understandable. The priest who blessed the set might not be such a bad idea after all.