Friday, June 17, 2016
The Conjuring 2: The Kids Are All Right, Until the Demon Shows Up
The original Conjuring didn't reboot the horror genre so much as reinvigorate it, reminding viewers that scary movies can be patient and legitimately disturbing rather than just loud and schlocky. It also demonstrated just how effective a director Wan can be. Having traded in the vulgar sadism of Saw for something more contemplative, he proved to be a master of the slow build, wringing tension from ostensibly mundane images and objects. The Conjuring was horror as negative space, turning the absence of incident into its own clammy terror. By the time Lili Taylor chose to play a seemingly innocent game called "hide and clap" with her young son, I practically needed a ventilator.
This sequel shows that Wan has still got it, even if it disappointingly finds him in a bit of a rush. Almost as soon as we meet the Hodgson family in Enfield, England—including single mother Peggy (Frances O'Connor, doubling down on her work as a grief-stricken mom after The Missing) and her four children—they begin witnessing unexplained phenomena: Doors swing shut suddenly, items disappear and then reappear in different places, and the 11-year-old, Janet (Madison Wolfe, scary and scary-good), finds herself sleep-walking and -talking. It's all expertly handled, and if nothing quite approaches the ingenuity of the original's hide-and-clap sequence, a handful of scenes—in particular one involving five-year-old Billy, his toy fire engine, and a darkened tent—achieve sustained levels of chilling suspense.
Thankfully, this movie does more than simply document the horrors that haunt the Hodgsons. As with the original, The Conjuring 2 purports to be based on a real-life case file from Ed and Lorraine Warren, the married paranormal investigators renowned for analyzing the infamous massacre in Amityville. The film actually begins there in 1977, where Lorraine (Vera Farmiga, the franchise's beating heart) falls into a trance and envisions Ed (Patrick Wilson, as sturdy as his sideburns) being killed by a demon that looks like a zombie in nun drag. Following this, Lorraine is understandably freaked out, and she insists that she and Ed suspend their practice of poking around sites supposedly infested with evil. Ed initially agrees, but then the Catholic Church comes calling with news of the Hodgsons' predicament; wary of being duped, the clergy want the Warrens to verify the family's claims before providing assistance. Meanwhile, young Janet has begun speaking in the rasping voice of a 72-year-old man, and he doesn't sound too happy. What's a good Christian couple with expertise in repelling the Devil to do?
Upping the stakes is essentially the mission statement of The Conjuring 2; if Rick Blaine were around, he'd describe it as "like any other horror movie, only more so". This means that the Hodgsons' torments gradually progress from existential to physical, gnawing anxiety giving way to extreme suffering. It happens roughly as expected—you can bet, for example, that Billy's zoetrope of "the crooked man" is going to manifest into a life-sized bogeyman, while Janet's control over her own actions grows increasingly tenuous. By the time she wakes up affixed to her living room ceiling, then gets yanked through it to her own bedroom—a space now adorned with crucifixes that slowly spin upside-down—it's clear that Wan has taken the gloves off.
"I need my Bible," Lorraine declares late in The Conjuring 2, and by that point, I was blindly clutching under my seat in the desperate hope of finding a spare Torah. Jokes aside, the film's focus on religion is only fitting. After experiencing this movie's rote, arresting antics, my faith in the horror genre is somewhat shaken. Or maybe that's just my nerves.