"The Conjuring" looks to cast a spell over audiences this weekend, with our own box-office reporter Amy Kaufman estimating the film with a $20-million budget may open to more than $30 million in ticket sales. It joins other recent return-on-investment horror titles from this year such as "Mama" and "The Purge."
"The Conjuring" is expected to better the supernatural buddy-cop flick "R.I.P.D.," which with its estimated $130 million price tag cost more than six times as much (ouch).
So how does that work? What makes for a (relatively speaking) little-scary-movie-that-could?
Based on a real-life couple, "The Conjuring" stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as paranormal investigators called to the remote home of a couple (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) and their family of young daughters. Ever since they moved into the house odd things have been happening and it's just getting worse.
The review in the Los Angeles Times by Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips called the film "old-school and supremely confident" while also declaring it "this year's miracle." Not the sort of words one usually hears for a demonic possession chiller.
Here are five ways the film capitalized on the creepy:
How much can darkness cost? The film is eerily effective in spinning something from nothing, often leaving the screen mostly dark as characters peer into a corner or enter a darkened basement. The little girls play a variation on hide and seek called "hide and clap" in which they hide around the house and clap to give the seeker clues. And it's terrifying. (And provides the fiilm's trailer with its climactic scare.) Who would have thought so much could be done with clapping in the dark?
Don't hide a good thing. Warner Bros., which is releasing the film, didn't keep it hidden under wraps as is done with so many horror films. Expressing confidence in the film, it ignited a wave of positive buzz for "The Conjuring" with a pair of Friday night screenings at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The film played well to the audience there and began building positive online buzz.
By contrast, "R.I.P.D." was not screened in advance for media or preview audiences. The only press screening for "R.I.P.D." began at 7 p.m. Thursday night, with at least one theater starting a public showing at 7:20 that same night.
Familiar but not overexposed. The characters played by Wilson and Farmiga are based on real-life couple Ed and Lorraine Warren. The movie makes a passing reference to a house in Amityville, as another of the Warren's cases formed the basis for "The Amityville Horror." So while "The Conjuring" plays with familiar horror tropes -- it's a haunted house/demonic possession story at its core -- the characters of the Warrens make for an interesting twist. And there has already been talk of a sequel and continuing their adventures, making them an oddball Nick and Nora Charles for the supernatural set.
Bring on the unexpected. Indie stalwart Lili Taylor seems an odd casting choice for a horror thriller, but her onscreen earnestness brings heart to the whirligig goings-on once the movie's possession plot kicks in. The gentle normalcy she and Livingston give off as concerned and frightened parents makes a fantastic counterpoint to the weird dynamics of Wilson and Farmiga. You kind of want to imagine what that double dinner date might be like.
Scary doesn't have to mean gory. And while director James Wan is perhaps still best known for igniting the "Saw" franchise and its so-called "torture porn" knockoffs, he has shown a taste for more traditional horror before, with his ghost tale "Dead Silence" as well as "Insidious"
"Just because I make scary movies doesn't mean I want to live in a scary world," Wan said during a Q&A at the LAFF. "I'm nothing like the films I make."
Wan will also see the upcoming release of "Insidious: Chapter 2" and will have the chance to prove himself apart from horror again when he takes on "Fast and Furious 7." Unless there are ghost cars in that one, it looks like his biggest shift in direction yet.
Follow Mark Olsen on Twitter: @IndieFocus