The lost Conjuring movie: 1991’s The Haunted
This past weekend, Annabelle: Creation took in $35 million to top the weekend box office, claiming another win for producer James Wan‘s ever-expanding Conjuring universe. Ever since 2013’s The Conjuring, the paranormal exploits of real-life husband/wife demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren have provided the foundation for a franchise that has spawned sequels and spin-offs including the forthcoming The Nun, The Crooked Man and, of course, The Conjuring 3. However, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga weren’t the first actors to portray the Warrens, as we’ve recently discovered the 1991 TV movie The Haunted that serves as something of a lost Conjuring movie. Learn more below, and check out stills from The Haunted in our gallery!
The Haunted first aired on the Fox Network on May 6, 1991, and starred Sally Kirkland (Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner for 1987’s Anna) and genre fav Jeffrey DeMunn (The Blob, The Walking Dead) as Janet and Jack Smurl. Based on a “true story,” the Smurl family moved to West Pittston, Pennsylvania in 1974 and began experiencing paranormal happenings, eventually enlisting the aid of Ed and Lorraine Warren to help ward off the demon trying to tear their family apart.
The paranormal activity in the movie starts off small, with strange smells, weird voices and items going missing and showing up in odd places. Things escalate when an unplugged toaster catches fire, a light fixture falls from the ceiling and Jack gets raped by a succubus ghost that alternates between a hot blonde girl with bad teeth and a fat man in drag. As in James Wan’s The Conjuring, the Warrens are introduced while conducting a college lecture on their research into various hauntings. Lorraine is portrayed by Diane Baker of Marnie and The Silence of the Lambs fame, while Ed is played by TV regular Stephen Markle (Star Trek: The Next Generation, One Life to Live), who actually resembles the real Ed Warren far more than Patrick Wilson. They come across almost as affable and pragmatic as they do in the new movies, with their religiosity played up far more. However, unlike in the two Conjuring movies where they’re the heroes, the Warrens don’t even show up until mid-way through The Haunted, and then only have about 10 minutes of screentime. However, the film itself is based on their own writing, a 1986 paperback co-written with the Smurls and Scranton newspaper man Robert Curran also titled “The Haunted.”
In this film the circumstances may be the same as the Conjuring formula (average family with a lot of kids has trouble with demon, contact the Warrens, the Church is reluctant to help, etc), but the focus remains firmly with the Smurl family and their struggles, with Janet and Jack at the center of the storm. Also unlike The Conjuring, there is very little in the way of dramatic buildup or stakes in The Haunted. There is no possession plot device, it merely remains a family having the bejesus scared out of them by an evil force. The most frightening scenes (the male spectrophilia rape scene, Janet’s bed levitation, a camping trip demon encounter) happen, end abruptly, and then the husband and wife will beg the Warrens or the Church for help. When they do receive spiritual aid the halt to the haunting is only temporary or, in some cases, only makes things worse. You begin to wonder when the Smurls are going to take any agency of their own, and wonder why they maintain their faith given how useless every religious figure is in this movie. If James Wan ever saw The Haunted, he clearly learned that those being haunted in these cases are not the most interesting characters, the Warrens are. Wan also wisely humanized the Warrens by incorporating their daughter into their life and making their love for each other central to their partnership.
That’s not to say the film is without merit. Besides serving as a bizarro universe version of The Conjuring, director David Mandel (F/X, School Ties, the original X-Files pilot) keeps the pace of The Haunted steady and the scares subtle. This is less Poltergeist and more Val Lewton, “horror of the imagination”-style frights. Perhaps the most terrifying moment happens when the Smurls are away camping and their neighbors hear all kinds of ungodly sounds emanating from the Smurl house in the middle of the night, with only a few lights flickering in the windows. Simple, scary, effective.
Eventually the media takes hold of the story and the Smurls become something of pariahs in their community, with the press and various wackos hounding them on their front lawn around-the-clock. Unfortunately, after a Frank Capra-esque scene of the Smurl’s neighbors banding together singing hymns and holding candles to drive out the demons, we learn that the Smurl family simply moved out of the house to be followed by the demon. The fact that they use a title card postscript to say that the demon was eventually exorcised by the Church in 1989 makes you wonder why the film doesn’t end with that instead.
While it may not be a masterpiece, The Haunted is a fascinating oddity and a trial-run at what has become one of the horror genre’s most dependable institutions. By itself, it’s a sturdy little ghost yarn that should appeal to fans of the Warrens and real-life hauntings. While there is no DVD or Blu-ray version available, you can find many grainy uploads available on YouTube.