It was a welcome change of pace. While someone like Hostel director Eli Roth continues to mop up the viscera and indulge his endless affinity for 1970s cannibal schlock with increasingly diminishing returns, limping into the decade like some sort of guy who’s had his Achilles tendon razor-bladed, Wan’s lighter touch has proved defter, and scarier.
In the years since, he’s continued in that direction (while also taking time to helm the enormously successful Furious 7 and the upcoming Aquaman to boot). The spate of extreme cinema / torture porn productions seem to have fizzled, and Wan now seems better positioned, solidly in the Creepy Things In The Shadows Go BOO! Business, which has always proven lucrative. It helps that he’s also, occasionally, a very effective filmmaker, building tension and generating the screams audiences pay to have elicited from them. The Conjuring 2 is his latest ghost, sneaking up behind you in the dark.
Too bad, then, that it proves a little too familiar. And more than a little silly.
Like its predecessor, The Conjuring 2 follows real-life scam arti… excuse me, “paranormal investigators” Ed and Lorraine Warren, played once again by a game Patrick Wilson and a far-too-good-for-this-bullshit-but-the-paycheck-must-be-nice Vera Farmiga. The sequel’s subject is the notorious Enfield haunting, widely considered to be almost the paradigm of the wave of supernatural hoaxes that emerged in the years after William Friedkin’s The Exorcist exploded into the public consciousness.
Wan and his story collaborators Chad and Chris Hayes play it completely straight, however, doubling down on their narrative contention that the Warrens are heroic truth-tellers in a world too cynical to believe in ghosts. In fact, The Conjuring 2 is at pains to posit the couple as long-suffering protagonists, gripped by premonitions of doom but bound by their love for each other. People do not go to films like this for hackneyed love stories, but points for trying something emotive, I guess.
In any case, the story rolls out. In a house in North London, weird shit is afoot. The Hodgson family – mom Peggy (Frances O’Connor), daughters Janet (Madison Wolfe) and Margaret (Lauren Esposito), and sons Billy (Benjamin Haigh) and Johnny (Patrick McAuley) – is beginning to notice something ghostly might be going down. Janet has been sleepwalking, for one thing, while others hear noises. Things that were in one place vanish, only to appear in another. A chair in the corner seems particularly occupied.
In short order, the haunting escalates, and actual presences are seen – an old man who lived and died there, but even more notably, a figure of a nun (bearing an uncanny resemblance to Marilyn Manson) who previously showed up in one of Lorraine’s visions, half a world away. Cops arrive, and are promptly spooked by the goings-on. A police officer recommends the family seek help from a pastor instead of the state.
The Warrens are dispatched – by the Church: it is an article of faith in The Conjurings that “The Church” routinely dispatches the Warrens, like they are on retainer – and things get as spooky as you expect. Crosses are turned upside down, Janet (apparently the vehicle of choice for the demonic spirits at play) begins speaking in growls and eerie old-man voices, shoulders are bitten by unseen mouths, and it’s generally not a relaxing time for the Hodgson’s, as their home as become a battleground with the beyond.
Throughout this escalation, Wan ably ratchets up the tension. His general technique involves quick glimpses of figures just out of focus and just out of the line of vision, alternating between static shots that allow the creep-factor to build and a restless camera that sweeps and dives, as though it were itself trying to get out of the house. It works well, up to a point.
The problem is that the build-hold-release aesthetic proves exhausting, and even comic, after a while. The Warren’s relationship is nowhere near as engaging as the screenwriters imagine, and a long segment in which Patrick Wilson plays the entirety of Elvis’ “Fools Rush In” on acoustic guitar, while the children sing back-up and Peggy weeps, is hilariously miscalculated. (If you’re wondering why he does this, it’s because the absent father took all the records. “When he left, the music left with him,” Peggy observes. “I’m sure it feels that way …” Ed responds. “No, I mean he literally took all the music.”)
By the time Ed heads to a water-filled basement that Wan has ripped wholesale from Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, The Conjuring 2 has long outstayed its welcome. Here is a film that in no way, shape, or form needed to clock in at two full hours. The atmosphere begins winningly ominous, and a few jump-scares land with enormous success, but there’s not enough here to sustain that kind of running time.
Some folks have decried the valorization of the real-life Warrens, but that’s not the real issue here. Wan can take them at their word and dive deep into the menace, but the payoff has to be worth it. The Conjuring 2 simply drones on after its initial jolt, mired in a marital drama in which the audience has no investment and a series of misjudged narrative devices like premonitions that go nowhere. The addition of a CGI “crooked man who walked a crooked path” drew vocal chuckles from the audience of teenagers I watched it with.
Still, if you like your houses haunted and your shadows populated by demons, there’s enough here to recommend. If only the extraneous stuff had been stripped out, and Wilson hadn’t wasted five minutes with his dumb song, Wan might’ve delivered some real, lasting scares.
His real talent, in horror, lies in a sense of unease, but he undercuts that throughout The Conjuring 2, falling back time and again on the power of someone jumping at you.
Will you jump, in turn? Probably. Will you remember it tomorrow? Unlikely.