The Conjuring 2
There’s a view that James Wan’s horror movies fall into the category of intelligent genre fare. And, I guess, they do, to the extent that they eschew gore and put the emphasis on character and atmosphere. But that doesn’t mean they’re any less beholden to standard shock tactics than their less esteemed brethren, or that the quality of the scripting is especially remarkable. The original The Conjuring was a decent-enough picture, making the most of its period setting and reputable lead thespians while flourishing its “based on a true story” badge with a pride that masked what should have had a “very, very loosely” preceding it. The Conjuring 2 is looser still in its authenticity, while possibly being even more enamoured of its ‘70s (England) trappings. It’s also the point where Wan’s signature moves have become entirely repetitive, even – at two-and-a-quarter hours – exhaustingly so.
In the first scene – Amityville 1976 – our God-fearing ghost/demon/spirit busters Ed and Lorraine Warren are engaged in an attempt to contact the presence in the famous house, and Lorraine encounters a freaky-ass Marilyn Manson nun (are nuns destined to be the next clowns? Possibly best ask a Catholic, but definitely if the mooted spin-off movie materialises). A freaky-ass Marilyn Manson nun who will inform the rest of the proceedings, so rather like the device of Annabelle in the original. That’s an informative set-up for how the whole movie is going, as the sequence is chock full of whispers, ghostly creaking noises, out-of-body experiences, suddenly darkening lights, demon children, basements (naturally), sinister laughing and Dutch angles. Wan is pulling out his entire bag of tricks, but it’s a bag of tricks leading the way, not in service of a strong or original story.
There’s a reason William Peter Blatty had a reputation as an intelligent (to do the adjective justice) contributor to the genre, and that’s because his material was imbued with genuine thoughtfulness, with philosophical and religious enquiry and a desire to take a viewer on a journey – the journey the author is on. That may have meant that, without a base, crude shock tactician like William Friedkin, his work fell more often than not on deaf audiences (The Ninth Configuration, The Exorcist III), but it also emphasises how the genre very rarely manages to marry the two polar forces of scares and meditation over what lies behind those scares.
Wan has little going for him here smarts-wise, alas; he’s on a mission to redux everything in the original and his Insidious pictures, and the believer status of the Warrens has little real import (“Your visions are a gift from God” is about the extent of it). So Lorraine is haunted by something truly dreadful (“Ned, this is as close to Hell as I ever want to get”), which just happens to stylistically resemble the previous dread figures they have come across (or Wan has, at any rate). And, wouldn’t you know it, somehow the very same Amityville demon has been manipulating the spirit in the Enfield Haunting case. Small otherworld, innit?
Every tactic has become familiar to the point of banality here, be they sound attacks in the corners of rooms, a whole scene in a flooded basement that appears to be flooded just because (in a house that is truly TARDIS-like compared to its modest exterior), scary spirit Wilkins, who moves oddly but isn’t really especially unnerving, or the familiarly-possessed daughter of the house. The latter’s vocal antics are far less troubling than Frances O’Connor’s outrageous Dick van Dyke accent as mum Peggy Hodgson (the final photos of the actual protagonists in the case are an amusing reminder of how glammed up these productions are).
I go on a lot about unnecessary lengths of movies these days, but really, The Conjuring 2 has no business not topping out at 100 minutes tops. Which isn’t to say it would be suddenly a whole lot better, but it might be a recognition that an over-extended running time in a horror is no indication of respectability, or still further, depth. There’s the occasional strong scene, admittedly; Ned’s first interview with Wilkins, in which they all agree to turn away from Janet (Madison Wolfe) is effective and engaging, as he probes the spirit’s reasoning for remaining; the earlier sequence of a TV interview with the Warrens is almost self-reflexive in raising the claims of hoaxes in respect of their cases, as it also applies tangentially to Wan’s disdain for sticking to the purported facts behind his story.
Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are, as before, a quietly compelling couple (when Vera isn’t called upon to scream, at least). Which is good, as there’s precious little substance for them to work with. Most of the supporting cast, O’Connor’s accent aside, are decent, including Franke Potente as the sceptical front in the field of paranormal investigation, although Simon McBurney may look the part but is distractingly broad as Maurice Grosse.
This is another of those summer releases set at Christmas, but even watching it seasonally fails to lend it much in the way of extra buzz. The Hark the Herald Angels Sing motif is about as far as it goes, although kudos to the director for including excerpts from The Goodies’ The End of the World Show, which the outrageous spirit absolutely refuses to let Janet sit down and watch all the way through, indulging in rampant channel hopping. There’s bound to be a The Conjuring 3, as this did as well as the first movie, but someone seriously needs to service the Warrens with a good screenplay; the four credited writers here (including Wan) resolutely fail in that regard.