The Conjuring 2
Directed by James Wan
Let's get this out of the way first: I love, love, love The Conjuring. Love. Love with all my heart and all my brain. Not only is The Conjuring one of my favourite horror films of, well, ever, it is one of my favourite films of, well, ever. Like The Exorcist before it, it stands head and shoulders with some of the greatest films of, well, ever. I love every aspect of The Conjuring, the performances, the cinematography, the art direction, the script, the music, the attention to detail. I believe that The Conjuring, again like The Exorcist before it, will stand the test of time and will be seen as a classic, as a master course of film making. The Conjuring, again, like The Exorcist before it, preys on our lizard brains with scares and childhood fears and adult stress but also works as a piece of art, as an example of film as art. Silence of the Lambs and Alien and The Shining and Jaws and Tod Browning's Freaks and Saw and Poltergeist and The Exorcist and The Conjuring - none of them transcend their horror film roots. Instead they are proudly horror films, they are the things that go bump in the night, they are the shadows running through the backyard, they are the eyes peering back from the the closet. They are the stories we shared when we sat around the fire late into the night last weekend or fifty thousand years ago. These films, they don't stand with the greatest films because they transcend their genre or their roots, they stand with the greatest films ever made because they are simply among the greatest films ever made. That they give you nightmares is just the added bonus.
The Conjuring 2 shares with its predecessor the slow burn, the creeping tension that keeps building and building and building until you feel like the tension can't build anymore without breaking and then it builds some more. It also shares its attention to detail, those small things that only people who remember the 70s would notice, things like the frizzy hair that is always three weeks past its due date, the curled corners of the posters on the kids' walls, fabrics that are neither colour or pattern found in nature. The Conjuring 2 also shares amazing shots and editing and cinematography that are showy but work to move the story forward. The camera pulling back over a suburban neighbourhood, the scene becoming opaque as we move through a window. A shot of a young girl asleep on her bed transitioning to the same girl asleep on a floor with no edit, with no camera movement. Shadows can be just that, shadows caused the way the light falls in the room or they can be the places where horror resides.
Everyday objects, a child's toy or a television remote, become symbols of impending doom and dread but never change their form, never change into some kind of Cronenberg monster scurrying away into the dark recess of the psyche. Instead, the use of common objects is almost Lovecratian, the way the everyday and the usual and the unspectacular can become horrifying and dark and the stuff of nightmares without changing shape or becoming more than they are. These everyday objects in the two Conjuring movies join the ceiling tile in Paranormal Activity as some of The Scariest Things Ever Filmed.
Where it is different is to the detriment of the movie. Some of the pop culture references this time around are a little too on the nose, a little too obvious, so much as to take us out of the movie. The use of The Clash's London Calling is not only inappropriate for the era (the movie is set two years before the song was written) but the way that it is used works more as an inside joke than anything else. The montage that accompanies the song is almost frame for frame a remake of the montage when London Calling played on Friends. There's also a pacing problem, a problem with the way the story is told. The first Conjuring is so damn tight it's like a drum skin. Everything in that film only serves to tell the story, to create a world where the supernatural and demons and a spiritual battle between good and evil is real and is happening. James Wan and his team went at that film with a focus that never wavered. It wasn't just the 70s setting, the film makers made a 70s film. Like the best of the era, it seemed to meander and move slowly towards its climax but is actually quite minimalist when you start to take it apart. The new film lags in the middle and feels like it's carrying some excess baggage.
There's also a problem of tone. The first film played it straight, with no winks or smirks. The Conjuring 2 has an ironic tone, there are winks and smirks. Some of the moments with our leads, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, have an undercurrent of irony. Those moments just don't work, they can't work. The only way these stories can be told is to go all in. Even if the actors and film makers think the whole thing is hooey and a joke and just a lark, those emotions shouldn't be captured on the screen. I'm pretty sure Roman Polanski didn't believe that a bunch of New York seniors were playing matchmaker for Satan but we never feel that watching Rosemary's Baby. And I'm pretty sure William Friedkin didn't believe that the devil was possessing pre-teen girls in Georgetown but he left those feelings out of the film. I don't truly know the religious feelings of anyone involved in the Conjuring movies but after the first one I could believe that they believed. After the sequel, I'm sure they think the whole thing is ridiculous. I don't know if it's the pressure of the Amityville hoax becoming more known or the controversies surrounding the real Ed and Lorraine Warren or what caused it but there is a crisis of tone with The Conjuring 2.
It's also telling that the weakest parts of the film is the story surrounding the Warrens. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are usually strong character actors but this time around there seems to be a lack of commitment at times. And the constant reminding of how much they love each other becomes tiresome and kind of weird after a couple of hours. Show us, don't blabber on and on and on about it. A flirtatious conversation about the sleeping arrangements moves from stilted to uncomfortable when it is taking place in a house where something horrific is torturing a child. The moments that work with the Warrens are those moments where they bring a calm and strength to a nightmarish situation. In the two films regular people are subjected to an irregular situation and the Warrens are the eye at the centre of the hurricane of horror, the ones that bring sanity. Those scenes with the Warrens work and they work well, when Lorraine shares a real moment with the mother or one of the kids or Ed plays guitar for the family or does some light plumbing, those scenes are real and human and help move the story forward and show why this family should trust them with their lives.
And there are other great moments in The Conjuring 2. Moments that flip the bird at most horror film conventions. A moment when the family flees their house, running into the street answers the usual criticism of "why don't they just leave?" The other criticism of "why don't they just move" is dealt with in a conversation about bureaucracy and waiting lists for affordable housing. It becomes frustrating though when other horror cliches paraded out, like a greatest hits package.
But, overall, The Conjuring 2 is good. It's a good, scary film that will make you jump and shout and there are moments that will crawl under your skin. And the film pays off for the attentive viewer, the one that watches not just the foreground but the stuff that makes up the background, the little details on the edge of the frame. It's a good sequel that moves the story of the Warrens forward. And James Wan's direction is a thing of beauty. Him and his team are among the great film makers working today. The confidence and skill and technique on display in a James Wan film, the way he uses the language of film, the way he can convey that childhood fear of the dark with something as simple as someone hiding underneath their bed covers armed with only a flashlight as they shiver in terror, pushes him into the upper echelon of film makers currently working. He has hit it out of the ballpark before, with Saw and Furious Seven and the first Conjuring. I just wish The Conjuring 2 was a great film, but it isn't. It's still better than most. But it's still just good.