Longtime readers may remember that I wasn’t overly generous to The Conjuring – James Wan’s first venture into the supernatural tales of God-fearing paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren – criticising it for coming across like a shrewd, generic, confused and plagiaristic endeavour. I’ve rewatched the film since and my opinion has changed very little. It’s watchable, but it feels like the result of a focus group session rather than anyone’s particular labour of love.
But, having spent time away from horror – adding an entry to the Fast & Furious franchise – seems to have done Wan the world of good. He returns to his beloved genre invigorated. While never exactly lacking in confidence previously, The Conjuring 2 sees Wan flaunting his abilities as a filmmaker. And whenever someone who genuinely knows what they’re doing gets to do that, you can be hard pressed to stop the enthusiasm transferring to the audience. In that sense, The Conjuring 2 is Wan’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 or Mad Max: Fury Road.
And it might just be the Mad Max: Fury Road of modern horror films.
Not in terms of pace or politics or invention. But in terms of showmanship.
It’s bloody good.
Taking the phrase “based on a true story” and stretching it about as far as the Coen Brothers might, Wan and his team of screenwriters (check the credits) reintroduce us to Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) a few years after the events of film one. They’re the only returning characters, so if you’ve not seen The Conjuring don’t let that stop you giving this film a shot. We catch up with them on site at the famous Amityville house. Lorraine’s gift for sensing the spooky is given a loving showcase, kicking the film into gear right off of the bat.
Wisely aware that the events of Amityville have been adapted for the screen quite enough already, Wan instead relocates us to Enfield, England (via an eye-rolling cue of The Clash) where the Hodgson family are experiencing several spooky and unwelcome bumps in the night. Held together by strung-out single mother Peggy (Frances O’Connor), this family of five live in a cramped, rundown and rather filthy little council house. Youngest daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe) starts waking up downstairs. There are loud poundings on the walls. While third child Johnny (Patrick McAuley) has an upsetting experience with a toy firetruck. There’s evidently something strange in their neighbourhood, but who’re you gonna call?
Well, the police, obviously. But the police are just as spooked as the Hodgsons, so eventually the church and even-more-eventually Ed and Lorraine Warren, but The Conjuring 2 takes a good hour to unite the events seen on either side of the Atlantic. During this first hour in America, Lorraine grows fearful that their work is fulfilling a vision of Ed’s death that she saw while they were in Amityville. Ed, meanwhile, is more concerned with being remembered as a crackpot following another P.R. blunder on national television.
Wan plays with the colour palette as we back-and-forth. America is warm and rich; England is dank and cold. When the two cultures merge mid-film it doesn’t so much feel as though The Conjuring 2 finds it’s feet (it’s had them all along), rather that combined forces kick events up a notch. There’s some fun to be had with the cultural melting pot, but one of the film’s pleasures is the consistency it maintains for its hefty 134 minute running time (practically unheard of in horror films).
Is Wan trying to bring back the idea of the blockbuster horror epic? The touchstones here are openly both The Exorcist and The Shining, the latter conjured (sorry) especially in Wan’s fondness for the slow zoom, combined with a score that openly tilts to Penderecki. Said score from Joseph Bishara also dabbles in hints of swooningly forlorn synths, recalling some of David Lynch’s own music for INLAND EMPIRE (a film which also had a thing for Penderecki). Credit to Wan that with a sizeable running time, The Conjuring 2 never particularly lags. Scares are frequent, but he never loses sight of the human characters either. There’s even time for Patrick Wilson to play some guitar. And y’know what? It’s welcome. It shows an interest in the reality of the story that lesser horror filmmakers might impatiently ignore.
The Conjuring 2 is certainly built for mass consumption, with its strong values, life lessons and credible time spent underlining the importance of family. But’s also out – first and foremost – to entertain. Assembled like an expensive ghost train ride, Wan deploys every trick in the book. His is a pretty thick book at this point, so we’re treated to ghouls with carnival make-up jobs (incredibly reminiscent of those seen in the Insidious films), jump-scares, crashing jolts on the soundtrack and plenty of crucifixes clutched in frightened fists. Wan even manages to make the jump-scares work this time; they’re earned; proving that they don’t have to feel like acts of cheap desperation. Pretty soon The Conjuring 2 starts to feel like a greatest hits, but one that’s been carefully sequenced and selected. All killer and precious little filler.
Those reeling at the sound of all this might also be interested to learn that the film’s real highlight, however, is a long, quietly controlled shot in which two-thirds of the action is completely out of focus. This scene (which lasts several minutes), also acts as a resounding showcase for Patrick Wilson. He remains one of American cinema’s most appealing stars (have you watched season 2 of Fargo? Why not?)
With so many children on the roster, it’s somewhat inevitable that quality levels vary there. By and large the girls work very well (kudos especially to Wolfe). The younger boys less so. It’s hard to criticise them too heavily as their inexperience shouldn’t be used against them, but poor young Benjamin Haigh has been handed a dog of a role here as stuttering biscuit-loving Billy; a creation of the writer’s room that’s a little too ‘Tiny Tim’ to swallow.
Nevertheless, mistakes of this nature are rare, and there’s so much fun to be had that it’s rather easy to forgive the film it’s cheesier moments (that final scene) or it’s wonkier elements (Where exactly is Franka Potente’s scholarly skeptic supposed to be from? And a basement in an Enfield council house? Really?) Such nitpicking feels joyless in the face of such a campy, all-inclusive scare factory. It’s curious, as the mix of ingredients that make up The Conjuring 2 don’t differ all that greatly from those in its predecessor, but the recipe works so much better this time. It’s tastier, more flavoursome. If it’s a guilty pleasure, then so be it, but it’s hard to deny how well it goes down.
This is horror hokum at it’s most slick and entertaining. Dark but not dour, daft but not dumb. And, for the record, it’s also refreshing to see a pro-faith film that doesn’t lecture or insist that it’s audience agree. The rewards for this heady mix can already be seen at the US box office, where Wan’s film has staked it’s claim at the top. If this one continues to pulls in the kind of ticket sales the first one did, and if it conjures (sorry again) the word-of-mouth response it deserves this time, there’s no reason to believe a third film won’t be with us a few years down the line.
And this time, I’ll be looking forward to it.