The immediate dilemma that presents itself with any suspense movie based on Ed and Lorraine Warren, especially one based on their explorations of demonology and hauntings, centers around veracity: how exactly does one make an effective thriller based on careers this well-known to the public and this contested? It doesn’t help one little bit that the most famous case the Warrens are known for investigating concerns the Amityville Horror, and a) that is the most thoroughly-debunked tale of supernatural activity in their repertoire, and certainly in modern history; and b) 2013’s The Conjuring ended with a coy final line about investigating a case in Long Island.
Movie Review: The Conjuring 2
By Ben Gruchow
June 23, 2016
The stage was set for a thoroughly unnecessary follow-up to an unusually effective horror film. Director James Wan (who returns for this sequel) has his own built-in limitation with this type of material, which is nestled like a Matryoshka doll inside one of his greatest strengths: his ethic entails a thorough square-ness and commitment to the genre elements - no matter how weird or borderline-goofy - that’s invariably turned on him in his contemporary projects (Saw, Dead Silence, the Insidiouses).
Therefore, it makes me extremely happy to come back and report that with The Conjuring 2, Wan has not only made a fine job of exploiting the type of atmosphere that showcases his directorial strengths and conceals his weaknesses, he’s happened upon a rather brilliant way to neatly sidestep the liability a story centering on the Warrens bring. In the process of doing this, he’s made a damned good film; even with my level of appreciation toward Wan’s skill as a craftsman of mood and atmosphere, I’m shocked at the level to which he’s conveyed familiar and unsurprising horror elements in such a satisfying way, and to the degree to which familiarity with the story structure in no way diminishes its impact, up to and including the final act.
The setting helps, I think, in both films. The Conjurings take place in the mid-1970s, and utilize their period elements in prevalent but unobtrusive ways. The first one took place in Rhode Island, and this one is set mostly in working-class London. The setting goes hand-in-glove with Wan’s genre sincerity, especially when you combine it with the decision to employ setting-relevant camera techniques. The first film arrived as a dizzying time capsule in this regard; the sequel goes considerably lighter on utilizing 1970s-style cinematography, but makes up for it with the setting. The Conjuring 2 takes place mostly in a gray row of council houses, bleak and forlorn, and one in particular, belonging to the Hodgson family: Peggy (Frances O’Connor) and her four children Margaret, Johnny, Billy, and Janet (Madison Wolfe).
The family is already in something of dire straights when we first meet them: the father has run off with another woman, leaving them with few possessions beyond the furniture that came with the house, and little money for food or belongings. The washing machine has flooded the basement downstairs. The plumbing doesn’t quite work. The walls are cracked and peeling. Janet has been caught smoking in school. And one night, as the two girls are getting ready for bed, Janet reveals that she’s made an Ouija board out of paper and pencil bits, and the two of them conduct an impromptu séance.
Certain things begin to happen after that; I’ll go no further about the Hodgsons, except to acknowledge that after a certain point, a representative of the Church reaches across the pond to the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, returning), exercising caution and wanting proof of supernatural activity before the institution gets involved. The two investigators have their own trials to contend with; in particular, the Amityville case (referenced in the film’s prologue) has bought them a whole lot of national attention and an equal amount of academic scrutiny and accusations of fraud. On a more personal front, Lorraine encountered a particularly unsettling manifestation during Amityville that seems to be trying to insinuate something.
The movie methodically, deliberately lays out its pieces, and what jumps out at us here, as before, is the screentime and emphasis given to fractured family dynamics, particularly when it comes to faith. The entirety of the story about the Warrens is weighted by on this; Lorraine’s vision has so unnerved her that she puts a moratorium on taking any more cases, possibly forever. As they arrive in London and things continue to develop, she vocalizes a divide between her observational conclusions and what she’s being told instinctually. A key moment that sets up most of the third act hinges on a decision between the two.
This is also where the filmmakers sidestep the issue of veracity. It does no good to continue without relating that the claim of the Enfield poltergeist (so named for the borough in which the Hodgsons live) has some fairly large holes in it, and several indications of falsification on the part of the daughters. Wan, and screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes and David Leslie Johnson, deals with this by setting up a story development that more or less aligns with the innocuous, objective narrative while concealing a more sinister motivation. This is not storytelling brilliance, but it’s done in such an assured and dramatically-truthful way that it fits right in with the rest of the film.
That a movie in what is ostensibly the “boo!” subgenre deserves a spot in a discussion about dramatic truth speaks volumes, and one needs only look at the way the world here is visualized to find evidence of that. The screenplay has some weak spots, to be sure (Janet is fine as a character, but at a certain point the movie seems to run out of things to do with the other three children). The cast is uniformly effective. O’Connor’s Peggy wears an expression of perpetual weariness and exhaustion on top of which other emotions intermingle and register. Wolfe achieves something similar, giving one performance with dialogue and quite another with facial expression. Best in show, rather expectedly, is Lorraine. Farmiga is a tremendously magnetic and evocative performer; in a film taking place mostly in rainy exteriors and chilly, shadowy interiors, she radiates necessary gravity and warmth.
All of this is without even mentioning the film is terrifying. Wan largely reuses his same aesthetic from the first film: long, gliding takes and camera movements, situating activity in the corners of the frame where we don’t usually look, playing with framing to suggest much more than explicitly show, and what I interpret as a pervasive fear of wrinkled, aged faces. The Conjuring 2 is Wan at the top of his game, and there are a few sequences here where he’s basically showing off just how good he knows he is at this stuff (my favorite is a prolonged conversation where one of the participants is in the background and out of focus for the duration) but there are a lot of moments that are frightening on the pure strength of their setup and Wan’s impeccable sense of timing. There are jump scares, to be sure - the type that still tend to hold up on second viewing, because they use sinister imagery on top of being unexpected - but there are also instances of dreamlike terror and mounting dread that are exquisite in their effectiveness. The opening Amityville sequence contains more tension and disturbing imagery in a couple of minutes than the actual Amityville Horror franchise has over the course of a half-dozen films. And in a franchise that seems to have an affinity for imbuing classical childhood toys with menace, this movie picks an ace, using the staccato nature of a zoetrope to truly unnerving effect.
Of course, the movie is heavily fictionalized on the basis of events and individuals; of course it doesn’t seriously challenge the Warrens as paranormal investigators. I don’t care. Its purpose is to make us feel for the people in this house and to extract an emotional reaction from us on the basis of its visuals and sound, and on the implications of its events, and this it does wonderfully. “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it,” as Roger Ebert was quoted, and The Conjuring 2 is a superb example of its craft.