James Wan has been dubbed the new Hitchcock. He talks to Film Critic Tony Earnshaw about his latest chiller The Conjuring 2.
“People like to be scared,” says James Wan, “especially in the context of a movie theatre where you watch the movie and eat your popcorn but once it’s done you move on. It’s not as scary as all the crap that’s happening in the real world right now. It’s escapism. It’s fun.”
The 39-year-old Malaysian-Australian writer-director is being widely touted as “the new Hitchcock” by fans and reviewers who liken his techniques to those of the Master of Suspense.
It’s a lazy and inaccurate comparison; when it comes to breaking new ground and creating intelligent cinema based on great writing and fine performances, no one touches Hitch.
But Wan’s impact can’t be denied. He’s at the heart of three modern – and hugely successful – franchises having initiated Saw, Insidious and, now, The Conjuring and its sequel.
If Saw was soaked in so-called torture porn then Insidious and The Conjuring entered into the realms of the supernatural with impressive effect. What’s more, The Conjuring with its focus on real-life husband-and- wife paranormal investigation team Ed and Lorraine Warren, was deliberately retro-tinged, referencing classic shockers like The Amityville Horror, which was also based on the Warrens’ experiences.
Now the Warrens are back in a film that was originally subtitled The Enfield Haunting. It is based on the story of the Hodgson family and the events of summer 1977 when their north London home was invaded by a violent poltergeist.
Patrick Wilson, Wan’s regular collaborator playing Ed Warren, fills in the gaps and reveals how his character comes to be in England in 1977.
“The Enfield haunting was the most documented paranormal case in British history. They refer to it as ‘England’s Amityville’. It’s a nice way for us to get the Warrens out of America and see how they do as fish out of water.
“The unexplained is very interesting to a lot of people. [In The Conjuring 2] we are dealing with religion and the flipside of that. This is pretty scary stuff.”
Audiences seem to think so. They’ve lapped up this second helping of jitters and jolts. And one of the key characters is a demonic nun…
Wan laughs. “I didn’t go to Catholic school so I have nothing against nuns. Maybe it’s the outfit and the religious iconography that goes with it: this image that is so holy could potentially be perverse. That in it’s way is kind of icky. It’s what makes it scary. That’s one of the themes we play with.
“It’s important when I design my scary scenes that you as an audience watching it think, ‘That could be me. What would I do in that situation?’ As a filmmaker I think, ‘Okay, what is the best way for me to mess with you?’ It’s [about] understanding the craft. If you understand it you can tear it apart and reconfigure it in your own way.”
Vera Farmiga, playing Lorraine, praises Wan (and co-scriptwriters Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes and David Leslie Johnson) for their character development. “We investigate her psychic turmoil more – her clairvoyance and the toll that it takes on her body, mind and heart,” she says, adding that “it starts from James’s imagination – how he envisions the thing. I come to it with the scope that I’m able to imagine and then you see what his intentions are, how he personifies these demons.”
Wilson, star of Insidious and its sequel and now The Conjuring 1 and 2, has been a constant in Wan’s films over the past six years. He sees Wan as embodying the key facet of an open mind: never sacrificing story and character for simple shocks and the reward of a chorus of screams.
“[James is] willing to roll on the fly. It’s not like he comes in knowing the exact shot list and which angle [to use]. As technically proficient as he is – you think this movie must be mapped out within an inch of its life but it’s not – he’s got these ideas.
“He comes in the room and it’s all a work in progress. That’s the technical side of it. Beyond that is a guy who is deeply romantic and has a lot of love for character and for stories.
“You always find that other balance in the film. Cinematically this has a much different feeling than the first one.
“What makes James so skilled is not just the way that he can craft a scare but the love that he has for character. If you think about it, all the great scary movies have got relationships.
“We have a husband and wife relationship, a very devoted family, a mother and her kids… so there are a lot of human elements going on. That’s what people really gravitate towards.”
Being at the heart of something so malevolent – at least on the screen – means that Wilson, Farmiga and Co might have let their imaginations run amok, allowing themselves to be genuinely scared by the atmosphere around them.
Wilson smiles when asked the obvious (and deathless) question as to whether he bought into the film and its frights. He gives two answers.
“Does the movie scare me? Several moments do. Most of the things that scare people don’t [scare the actors] because we shot them, but at the premiere the other night he got me a few times. It’s good.
“I’m pretty steadfast. When you’re a husband and a dad you’re trying to drive the ship. What rattles me? If I screw up making sandwiches in the morning for the kids. ‘Oh, man, I put too much peanut butter on that one…”
The Conjuring 2 is on nationwide release.