Review: “The Conjuring 2”
James Wan has been in the horror business long enough to have started developing not only a recognizable style and the touch of a seasoned genre storyteller, but also to have started communicating a particular worldview that began its gestation as far back as Insidious in 2011, his first attempt at a franchise after launching the improbably successful Saw movies. Being that this summer’s horror blockbuster The Conjuring 2 will be Wan’s last directorial effort in the genre for a while, with his next project the DC live-action adaptation of their Aquaman property, it’s fitting that Conjuring 2 pays all kinds of homage to his past work while also advancing its vision of the spirit realm he first established with The Further.
In fact, as Conjuring 2 opens up, Wan seems to forget that he’s not actually filming another installment of Insidious: his depiction of Lorraine Warren’s (Vera Farmiga) out-of-body tour through the Amityville house on the night of its most gruesome murder resembles co-star Patrick Wilson’s sojourn into The Further, from the slow zoom-in-and-out on her eyes to the echoey sound design and subtle slo-mo. With its population of twitchy ghosts and darting, giggling children, it’s a very similar space to the one we saw in Insidious, lacking only that version’s fog and impenetrable shadows - most likely a deliberate attempt to differentiate the franchises, but also, perhaps, an indication of Wan’s growing confidence in his own vision of the afterlife.
The ghosts and demons of both the Insidious and Conjuring franchises, and even harkening back as far as his underrated Dead Silence, tell us the most: his ghosts are pale, doll-like apparitions that move in quick-edits, while demons sit in the frame, heavy and still and shrouded in darkness. Even in sudden shock-cuts, like Insidious’s signature boo-moment when the “Darth Maul” demon gapes behind Patrick Wilson’s head (reprised in Conjuring 2, with the ghost of Bill Wilkins substituting), his demons seem to have already been there before they became visible, or before we became aware of them. It sends the message that we are temporary, but evil is not. Evil is a fixture of the world. Lorraine even seems to speak to this while sitting opposite a cypher for total skepticism (Franka Potente’s Anita Gregory) and one for total faith (Simon McBurney’s Maurice Gross), discussing the Enfield case in daylight: “The demons are worse.”
The Conjuring 2 spends quite a while establishing this premise, too: following once again in the tradition of the Insidious movies, and arguably that of all great possession/demonic-presence horror, Wan pits a tightly-knit family against a crafty, malevolent enemy bent on unraveling them. While there’s plenty to be said regarding the movie’s top-notch scares and sustained atmosphere of dread, the movie’s tactics would be useless if it didn’t take the time to set up the emotional core of the Hodgsons’ family life, whose repeated testing over the course of the movie shapes and strengthens its ability to scare us, and at its very best, to stay with us. In a case of economical storytelling, we get everything we need to know about the family caught in the middle of the movie’s paranormal activity in just a handful of scenes - the Hodgson kids’ walk home from school, the misunderstanding in the kitchen, and a little aside in the laundry room between mother Peggy Hodgson and a friend - nicely reemphasized in a couple of later scenes. There is a full-blown musical number at the movie’s midpoint that’s perfectly poised between pure cheese and affecting breather, allowing the first half of the film time to settle before the stakes jump in the second. It gives us a chance to see the divided Hodgsons reunite and share what’s ultimately a pretty tender family moment to the strains of Patrick Wilson’s Elvis impersonation. They way Janet (Madison Wolfe, firing on all cylinders the entire movie) rectifies a first-act misunderstanding regarding a cigarette with her mother is also unexpectedly touching for the innocence of the gesture, and Peggy’s reaction: one of unconditional love and forgiveness amid what has been, for most of the movie’s runtime up to that point, a lot of escalating anxiety.
James Wan has perfected the jump-scare and uses it to maximum effect for The Conjuring 2. Apart from an innate understanding of audience expectations and an immaculate sense of timing he’s fine-tuned in accordance with those expectations, he’s really harnessed the aspect of sound design, which I think can elevate a good horror movie to a great one. It goes beyond just timing loud noises or blowing out the bass, becoming a matter of detail. Earlier, I touched on the echoey quality of the scenes in this movie’s “Further,” but there’s also the excellent grafting of Wilkins’s voice over Janet’s in those scenes where he communicates through her, and various, almost subliminal cues, such as Wilkins’s whistled tune, which, if you listen closely, is buried deep in the mix leading up to the film’s very first paranormal event. One of the movie’s simplest and most memorable scares is in fact entirely in the audio: a disembodied scream from a dark tent at the end of a hallway. Nothing pops out, nothing gets thrown around, but it stops your heart for a second and leaves you cold.
The film’s most bravura scene isn’t even connected to the haunting in Enfield, or at least not initially, and shows off every one of James Wan’s strengths: the scene in the Warren’s very own study, when Lorraine comes face to face with the film’s demonic entity. Wan pours every trick in the jump-scare playbook into this scene, stacking one atop the other until the dust of overuse falls away, leaving one of the most stunning sequences of jump scares I can think of in the genre. The breath-holding tension, the stuttering lights, the slamming doors and windows, the self-playing records, the disembodied shadows, the freaky paintings, the death-white fingers - they don’t feel like the tropes they are, but instead like a series of escalations leading up to a narratively significant event. Wan understands this best of all, and it bears repeating: his scares serve a goddamn purpose, and that’s why they work.
This is a major issue with horror movies in general and was even a flaw in the otherwise excellent The Conjuring, that I feel has been properly addressed for the sequel. There are very few gotcha-moments in Conjuring 2 that exist purely for the sake of having some gotcha-moments in there - I suppose the scenes in the flooded basement and the Crooked Man’s tent count, but these are relatively brief and harmless diversions from the movie’s larger continuity. Maybe the most glaring flaw with the original Conjuring was its climactic exorcism, which, while just as stylishly shot as anything else, was sudden, jarring, and ultimately way too light and inconsequential to make more than a lukewarm impression. It gets better with repeated viewing, but still falls flat. The sequel, on the other hand, takes great pains to establish its Poltergeist-y climax and set in motion the pieces that lead to the clash between the Warrens, the Hodgsons, and the entities haunting them both, reaping the benefits of a tighter, more complete, and more dramatically satisfying progression despite The Conjuring 2 being a longer and more patient affair than the 2013 movie. And, since it earns its terrific (and terrifying) climax, Conjuring 2 also earns its lengthy happy ending, which we can chalk up as both another improvement on its predecessor and another facet of Wan’s cinematic worldview: it may not be the most original take, but Wan’s preoccupation with this trope of families-vs-evil-forces seems to indicate to us that, despite the prevalence of evil of the world, family survives.
All told, I think that with the release of The Conjuring 2, it’s time to finally start taking James Wan seriously as a horror auteur. The timing may be a little awkward - this is his last horror movie for a while, as mentioned - and the movie may be heavily indebted to classic horror iconography, but the craft and care of the The Conjuring 2, to an even greater degree than The Conjuring, can’t be ignored. As a whole, it represents the crystallization of an exciting voice in the genre and all but certifies James Wan’s status as one of Hollywood’s great horror directors - and on top of that, it’s a goddamned sequel, and a goddamned great one, too. That, if nothing else, deserves some goddamned recognition.
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