2013’s The Conjuring is a damn great movie and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s a masterwork of classic horror filmmaking that manages to work despite the by-the-numbers plotting, shamelessly overt 70s horror references and the fact that the Warrens are basically considered frauds even by those who consider themselves experts on the paranormal today. It’s the film that undoubtedly cements James Wan as one of the best genre filmmakers working today (despite following it up with the ambitious, but baffling Insidious: Chapter 2), displaying impressive craftsmanship that is both confidently stylish and playfully manipulative. Though Wan has stated he wants to ease out of the horror game as he heads into blockbuster filmmaking with the excellent Furious 7 and the upcoming Aquaman, he has come back for one more go around with The Conjuring 2.
Let me paint a picture for you. It’s 10:30 pm, I’m in a packed theater, and I notice it’s full of mostly young people, seemingly ranging from early to late 20s. I quickly realize that this was one of “those” horror audiences. The kind that tend to be loud, obnoxious, channeling their inner MST3K, and this was made clear as soon as the previews started and heckling ensued. There was even a collective laugh at the trailer for Don’t Breathe (which looks great, by the way). I was worried. However, by the time we get a few scenes into The Conjuring 2, everyone was silent. Everyone was sucked into the film, they screamed when they were supposed to scream, laugh when they were supposed to laugh, and every time it seemed like everyone had a grasp at what the film was doing, it completely subverted their expectations, and their reactions were glorious.
It’s a testament to the sheer command that director, James Wan, has over an audience and his ability to utilize his understanding of genre and audience psychology in his filmmaking. Jump scares has been a heavily criticized element of many modern horror films, and rightly so, but what James Wan does is slightly different. He allows for suspense to build, he allows the dread to sink in with both the characters and the audience and when it comes time for the payoff, he puts a very slight, but effective twist on what the audience would’ve expected and it is amplified by the wonderful cinematography (Don Burgess) and editing (Kirk Morri). Yes, it is a bit of recognizable formula, but the results clearly show that the effectiveness is what matters, and boy howdy is it effective. It’s truly masterful filmmaking and I’m glad that he still able to bring it with the same level of enthusiasm as any young artist trying to make their mark.
Like the first film, discussing the plot is a bit pointless because is it very much a standard genre exercise on paper. Surprisingly enough though, Wan (who shares a screenplay credit with Carey Hayes, Chad Hayes and David Johnson) injects more to the film than I expected. Like any good sequel, it expands upon the first. It does a great job at grounding the film on an emotional level, not just with the family in need of help, but with the ghostbusting couple, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively). There’s an undercurrent of humanity, empathy and even spirituality (believe it or not, this is legitimately a more Christian movie than every Christian movie I’ve seen) involved that comes across stronger than it did in the first film. We get to spend a lot of time with these characters, we get to know them and it plays on that feeling of needing someone to be by your side and to believe you at a moment when you need it the most. It breathes humanity in ways that you simply don’t see in most horror films, indie or studio. For example, there’s a scene where, in an effort to comfort the Hodgson family, Ed plays the guitar, and doing a passable Elvis impersonation, singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” It’s a legitimately sweet moment, specially in visually portraying Ed’s love for his wife as they look at each other during the scene. It’s a scene that could easily be cut out in its long runtime of 134 minutes, but it adds so much to the film on an emotional level, that I would hate it for it to be cut out. I almost feel like after pulling off something like the ending of Furious 7, Wan has discovered his inner sentimentalist, and I am loving it.
Though there is one scene where Ed is examining a giant old camera and comments on how small and lightweight it is. It is utterly pointless and doesn’t come back in anyway, but it was so stupid and ridiculous that I wouldn’t have the film without it.
These small, character moments are really what stuck with me after the film was over. In terms of scares, it really delivers, but there isn’t anything in this film that comes close to the inventiveness of the Clap Scene from the first film. Having said that, there is this thing in the film called The Crooked Man, which is the stuff of nightmares. I don’t want to ruin it, though, because it’s legitimately one of the coolest things I’ve seen all year.
The film is also full of really good performances. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are a great emotional center for the film, an endearing couple that can’t help but get involved if it means a family can sleep in peace. Frances O’Connor is great as Peggy, the put upon single mother in the Hodgson family. Whenever the haunting isn’t involved it’s like she’s stepped right out of a small drama about British working class woes. The daughter being targeted by the supernatural is Janet, played by Madison Wolfe, who is really strong given her age and the sheer amount of craziness that her character goes through. Even the smaller characters played by the likes of Simon McBurney, Maria Doyle Kennedy and Bob Adrian get some great moments.
The Conjuring 2, like its predecessor, doesn’t reinvent the wheel, nor it that its goal, but from a filmmaking perspective it’s damn near flawless. Yes, I’d agree that the first film is tighter, the minor indulgences are a huge part of what I found so endearing and compelling. It truly is one of the best horror sequels ever. In a way, it might kind of be the best superhero film of 2016, as we are now in the second installment of, what is now, a franchise centered on two heroes going out and helping people who aren’t getting it from anyone else, no matter how dangerous it might be. And in a summer that, aside from a select few, looks totally worthless, The Conjuring 2 is exactly the kind of movie I needed. It’s a great film, with endearing characters, an emotionally resonant story and effortlessly delivered spooks, and it shows that the Warrens can carry a franchise worth following to hell and back. 95/100