There is a moment in The Conjuring 2 in which Patrick Wilson’s ghostbuster Ed Warren, hoping to cheer a group of frightened kids, serenades them all with croony Elvis song ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’. With a guitar in hand and kids gathered at his feet, fans of musicals may note that it’s framed almost exactly like the Edelweiss scene from The Sound of Music – just swap the golden lustre of a 1930s Austrian mansion for a grim council house in 1970s Enfield. It’s a sweetly old-fashioned moment of levity in the horror sequel, as if Gordon McRae was suddenly dropped into The Haunting of Hill House – and it seems to be the perfect visual shorthand for Patrick Wilson’s career.
Beginning his career on Broadway, Wilson earned acclaim (and two Tony nominations) for his roles in musicals Oklahoma! and The Full Monty, as well as touring production of Carousel and Miss Saigon. With his old-school good looks and talent for show tunes, he would have been Hollywood’s go-to leading man in 1955 – a hop, skip, and a jump away from making the kind of Rodgers and Hammerstein cinematic behemoths you fall asleep to at Christmas. In 2019, however, the picture’s a little different. The body of work he’s assembled resembles more a character actor’s career. By his own wry admission, a typical Patrick Wilson role is “usually a very conflicted All-American looking guy”. His filmography is littered with them – jaded sheriffs, faded prom kings, washed-up superheroes, disgraced family men – as well as an intriguing affinity for horror.
Before these more complex roles, Wilson’s early film success came in 2004 as Raoul de Chagny in the film of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s hit musical The Phantom of the Opera. It’s just the kind of straightforwardly heroic part you’d expect from an actor who came up in Broadway musicals – but it’s not the kind of role he would stay in. The following year Wilson appeared in Hard Candy as Jeff Kohlver, a paedophile who finds himself at the mercy of Hayley (Ellen Page), the 14-year-old girl he’s been grooming online. As Hayley’s captive, Jeff charms, bargains, pleads and threatens, flicking between sweaty desperation and terrifying aggression as the roles of predator and prey shift. It’s a tough watch – seeing Hayley gearing up to perform a particularly sensitive kind of amateur surgery on Jeff is toe-curling – but more than worth it for the fantastic performances. Wilson is utterly compelling as the repulsive Jeff, enough to make you forget that just a year earlier he’d been a dreamy romantic lead in a big-budget musical. While not an all-out horror, Hard Candy is arguably an early step towards the genre where Wilson would find his niche.
Over the next five years, Wilson continued to work steadily. The results are solid, if a little unremarkable. Save for Little Children, and a great turn as Dan Dreiberg in Zack Snyder’s divisive Watchmen, little stands out until 2010. It’s here that Wilson undoubtedly found his groove with the first of his collaborations with James Wan. The pair have worked together five times, most recently in 2018’s wonderfully madcap Aquaman. Their first film, Insidious, was made for a paltry $1.5 million and earned almost $100 million back – a promising return for the burgeoning partnership. Wilson has since spoken of what drew him to the project – Wan, the man who gave the world Cary Elwes sawing off his own foot in the world’s nastiest bathroom, making a terrifying horror with no blood, no swearing, and a PG-13 rating, was too good to resist. It’s a standard enough Haunted House premise, but with enough inventive plotting (“It’s not the house that’s haunted… it’s your son”), striking imagery, and strong performances it really stands out in a crowded field. The split-second shot of the Lipstick-Face Demon appearing behind Wilson’s oblivious Josh is genuinely terrifying for the unsuspecting, and the film has rightfully become a classic of the genre.
It’s Insidious 2, though, where Wilson gets to really let loose. After his spirit is trapped in the ghostly realm known as The Further at the end of Insidious, Josh’s physical body becomes possessed by the murderous ghost of Parker Crane. Pitching somewhere between Jack Torrance and Norman Bates, the gradually-decaying Evil Josh is a hoot, trying to block out the murderous whisperings of Parker’s equally-dead mother while pulling out his own rotting teeth and chasing his family around with a baseball bat. This isn’t a performance that demands a great deal of nuance, and Wilson has enormous fun in the dual role, clearly relishing the rare chance to play an all-out horror movie villain. With Wilson seemingly becoming the (sedater) Bruce Campbell to Wan’s Sam Raimi, the pair’s next horror project brought a role reversal; rather than victim, Wilson now had the chance to go on the offensive as demonologist Ed Warren in 2013’s The Conjuring.
Blossoming into one of the most lucrative cinematic universes that did not emerge from the pages of a comic book, The Conjuring movies are arguably horror flicks for people who don’t usually like horror. They’ve got their fair share of scares, but they’re an altogether cosier affair than the stark shocks of Insidious. This is a comfier 1970s period piece, a world of sideburns and impressive knitwear where people don’t usually die, they just get severely menaced. Wan anchors the two films with the relationship between Ed and his wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), husband-and-wife paranormal investigators who came here to exorcise demons and cherish the heck out of each other… and they’re all out of demons. Wilson plays Ed as a no-nonsense everyman – just as likely to be seen fixing a car or mending a washing machine as he is banishing ghosts – but takes pains to make his total adoration and respect for his wife clear in every scene. Between the inverted crucifixes and creaking doors the Conjurings are essentially a love story, where Wilson gets to play to his strengths as both romantic lead and Scream King.
Romance and horror crop up again (to much less cuddly effect) in one of Wilson’s lesser-known horrors, S. Craig Zahler’s grisly Western Bone Tomahawk. Alongside Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins, Wilson stars as foreman Arthur O’Dwyer, a man who sets off to rescue his wife Samantha after she’s kidnapped by some rather carnivorous cave-dwellers. When we first meet Arthur, he’s recuperating after breaking his leg. Falling just short of being outright surly, he’s a man too stoic even to read aloud a love letter to his wife when she asks him to. Wilson conveys his vulnerability beautifully, peeling back the layers of rough Western masculinity to show a man fighting not to lose hope in the worst imaginable circumstances. The pulpy Cowboys-vs.-Cannibals premise is offset by some truly grotesque violence, and Wilson turns in another brilliant performance – as Arthur hobbles relentlessly on one good leg across the unforgiving terrain, we’re made to feel every agonising step.
Next up for Wilson is Annabelle Comes Home – a Conjuring franchise outing where its creepiest doll wreaks yet more havoc. With musicals having something of a Hollywood resurgence lately, hopefully Wilson will get the chance to show off his singing chops again sometime soon. In the meantime, the Very Conflicted All-American-Looking Guy will make a comeback later in 2019 when Wilson appears as Edwin Layton in Roland Emmerich’s World War II epic, Midway. After that, a role in horror anthology Nightmare Cinema, Netflix’s upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novella In the Tall Grass, and a third Conjuring movie due to arrive in 2020 prove that this Scream King isn’t quite ready to relinquish his crown just yet.