Friday, June 17, 2016

The Conjuring 2: The Kids Are All Right, Until the Demon Shows Up

Vera Farmiga is haunted by demons in "The Conjuring 2"
Everything undead is alive again in The Conjuring 2, a skillfully constructed dispensary of the heebie-jeebies. Directed by the 21st century's preeminent purveyor of nightmares, James Wan (Saw, Insidious), it's a methodical exercise in modern horror, with all of the required elements: a haunted house, a possessed child, jolt-scares, intrepid investigators, and shadowy things that go bump in the night. There's not a whole lot new to see in this dark, foreboding film, but in horror, familiarity can breed fear as well as contempt. When coming face-to-face with The Conjuring 2's predictability, you may be inclined to roll your eyes, but then, you may be too afraid to open them in the first place.

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.

Don't worry, little girl, it's just a dream. (It's not.)
And yet, there is something mechanical to Wan's shivery high jinks here, a hint of complacency or perhaps boredom. It is almost too easy for him to frighten his audience, to the point that virtually every sequence follows an irritating pattern. Tight close-ups on the characters obscure our view of their surroundings, we fret about what might be behind them, the music swells ominously, and then BOO! Some of the jump-scares are fake-outs, others are the real poltergeistian deal, but in either case, Wan's repetitive technique for generating apprehension feels cheap, unworthy of such a talented filmmaker. The whiff of formula that lurked beneath his prior movies has turned into a stench.

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?

Just your usual marriage of love and paranormal activity
Fortify the bonds of their marriage, is what. Look, nobody is going to compare Wan to Eugene O'Neill—The Conjuring 2 is a horror movie, not a marital drama. Still, there's real pathos to the relationship between Ed and Lorraine, a love founded on curiosity, compassion, and mutual faith. The Warrens aren't just the wizened authorities who pop up in the third act, spout some exposition, and then leave. They're the true center of this story, and Wan (who co-wrote the script along with three screenwriters) wisely places them in the middle of the danger, enhancing our emotional attachment and thereby upping the stakes.

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.

Which is both deflating and satisfying. The irony here is that, the crazier The Conjuring 2 gets, the less scary it becomes; watching terrible things happen is always less terrifying than waiting for them to happen. Still, Wan's ability in this regard is considerable—when he wants to, he can really let it rip—and it's easy to get swept up in the crosswinds of horror that buffet his victims so forcefully. That buffeting is often literal: Characters regularly find themselves levitated, with ghosts hurling them across rooms and into walls, and Wan's use of low-key special effects remains impressively invisible. (Less successful is the presence of the token skeptic, here played by Franka Potente, who insists that the possessed child is "faking it". Come on, lady, it's the '70s—haven't you seen The Exorcist?) There's plenty more: a clever twist involving multiple tape recorders, an especially threatening dead tree, and a basement filled with muddy water that just screams danger. All of this clutter may be chaotic, but it's also entertaining, and if the resolution to the film's extended climax is a bit of a letdown—it's basically just a gonzo variation on Rumplestiltskin—getting there is simultaneously draining and fun.

"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.

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