This week sees the opening of James Wan’s The Conjuring, the horror maestro’s latest scream-filled outing that has already picked up plenty of accolades, thanks to an early premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. A riff on the classic haunted house trope, The Conjuring laces in plenty of that “based on a true story” stuff that’s so often tossed on horror film branding with very little basis in fact – which makes the film’s apparent basis in fact all the more interesting (and, fine, totally scary).
The film centers on the haunting of the Perrone family (led by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), who find their lives terrifyingly upended after moving into a large, isolated farmhouse with a bloody history (pro tip: never move into a large, insolated farmhouse with a bloody history). All the classic hallmarks of a demonic haunting show themselves early – bad smells, bumps in the night, stopped clocks, bad dreams, incessant knocking, destroyed belongings, visions, and a creeping sense of dread that all seven Perrons can’t escape – so the arrival of noted demonlogists Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) comes as a tremendous relief. The arrival of the Warrens will also come as relief to fans of the couple’s work in the paranormal realm, as yup, the Warrens really did investigate the paranormal and the demonic and, indeed, The Conjuring is based on one of their actual cases.
But while The Conjuring is the first feature film based on a Warren case to use the Warrens and their process as a major part of its plot, it’s not the first feature film based on a Warren case to hit the big screen. In fact, while you might not know the Warrens, you probably do know their work, at least in the cinematic sense.
The Amityville Horror series (1979–2011)
While there are no less than ten films that chronicle (in one way or another) the haunting of George and Kathy Lutz’s Amityville, Long Island, New York house in the 1970s, the best film is still the first film (sorry, Ryan Reynolds). Though Stuart Rosenberg’s 1979 film centers on the best-known Warren case, the Warrens themselves are not represented in the film and their involvement in the actual case wasn’t really that large – they mainly helped capture images of the house’s apparent demon in the middle of the Lutz haunting. While the events of the Amityville Horror and the family’s story have been called into question for years, the Warrens (and another parapsychologist, Hans Holzer) have maintained that the house was filled with malevolent spirits, thanks to its horrible history. At the very least, Rosenberg’s film is a spiritual (sorry, had to do it) cousin to Wan’s film, and fans of the first film who like getting a “things that go bump in the night” story ratcheted up beyond all sense and comfort will probably want to immediately double feature The Conjuring and The Amityville Horror.
The Haunted (1991)
Another classic Warren case – the Smurl haunting that spanned the years of 1974 and 1989 in the family’s Pennsylvania home – also got the Amityville media treatment, complete with a book and a based-on movie. While the Smurls’ story didn’t spawn the same sort of franchise as the Amityville Horror, it did at least inspire a television movie in 1991 (don’t sniff! Sally Kirkland was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work as Janet Smurl!). Like most Warren cases, the Smurl haunting has been called into constant question, and from a large cross-section of people no less, including the usual skeptics, priests, the chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and even the home’s eventual non-Smurl owner. The Warrens, however, felt that the home was inhabited by “very powerful” demons and claimed they had audiotapes that backed up their claims. The Smurls themselves also felt that the disruptions had been relieved after an intense praying session in 1986, though Janet Smurl later commented that there were still weird shadows and strange knocking about. Hey, no matter what happened, it’s certainly fun to watch Sally Kirkland get the crap scared out of her in The Haunted.
The Haunting in Connecticut (1999)
Yet another Warren case adaptation, The Haunting in Connecticut was very loosely based on the Carmen Snedeker case from the 1980s. Much like The Amityville Horror, the Warrens are not present in the film and the major helpful force is a priest (played by Elias Koteas). Lorraine herself has commented that the film was “very, very loosely based” on their work, but that the real Snedeker case was “much, much scarier than any movie could ever be,” which is absolutely terrifying when you consider that the Virginia Madsen-starring film was set in a former mortuary that had been the sight of many a nefarious séance. The house was cleared of evil after a 1988 exorcism, which makes the real Snedeker case our plot pick for that inevitable The Conjuring sequel.
While not a straight adaptation of an actual Warren case, Poltergeist clearly drew a lot from the Warrens’ work and process, and the character of Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight’s parapsychologist) has often been identified as being directly inspired by Lorraine (though we also have to point out the Zelda Rubenstein’s spiritual medium, Tangina Barrons, also has plenty in common with Lorraine). Fans of Tobe Hooper’s film will undoubtedly get a major Poltergeist feel from The Conjuring, at least once the Warrens and their team takes up residence in the Perron house and get to work on capturing evidence of the evil spirit necessary to get the Catholic church to approve an exorcism (better known as the worst slumber party ever).
The Conjuring opens on Friday.