Movie Review: The Conjuring 2
By Ben Gruchow
June 23, 2016
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.
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.