Editor’s Notes: The Conjuring 2 opens in wide theatrical release today, June 10th.
What’s that saying? If at first you do succeed, try, try again (until you don’t). That’s a paraphrase, of course, but when it comes to the horror genre, a single success can lead to an entire series or franchise spinning out across the better part of a decade or two. And when audiences grow tired of the set-in-concrete formula, the series’ rights-holder will go the reboot route, sometimes even multiple times (see, e.g., Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Obviously, we’re not there yet with the Conjuring series – and yes, given the demon-hunting couple at the center of the first film, it’s ripe for multiple entries – but we’ll get there soon enough. It’s unclear, however, whether James Wan (Furious 7, The Conjuring, Insidious, Death Sentence, Saw), a filmmaker who deserves the “horror auteur” label without reservation or qualification, will stick around beyond the financially motivated producer title.
Wan is a master at creating and maintaining suspense well before we get to the obligatory jump scares and visceral images associated with the horror genre.
Until then, Wan will continue to bring a skillset nearly unparalleled in the genre. He’s not just a master of the jump scare or the visceral image. He’s a master at creating and maintaining suspense well before we get to the obligatory jump scares and visceral images associated with the horror genre. As with many master filmmakers – usually outside the horror genre, not working inside it – Wan has developed a bad case of the bloats. With a running time well over two hours padded out by repetitive shocks and scares, not to mention a desultory, over-indulgent approach that over-emphasizes the “slow” part of “slow-burn,” The Conjuring 2 ends up feeling like the longest horror film ever made. It’s not, of course, but when Wan gives us yet another scene involving demonically possessed children throwing temper tantrums, it starts to feel tiresome before moving to actively annoying stage.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Purported – like its profit-turning predecessor – to be “based on a true story” (the better to attract true believers eager to experience hauntings and possessions at a relatively safe remove), The Conjuring 2 centers on the so-called “Enfield Poltergeist” or haunting, a late-‘70s case involving a semi-destitute family in England who claimed a malevolent spirit invaded their council flat to cause all manner of disturbances. Initially, our fearless demon hunters and self-described “Agents of the Church,” Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), refuse the call. As the resident psychic, Lorraine fears for Ed’s safety, claiming she’s seen Ed’s death. Confident in Lorraine as his spiritual and physical back-up, Ed more or less brushes off her warning, eventually convincing Lorraine that the good people of Enfield, England – or rather a specific, spirit- or demon-haunted family, desperately needs their help.
To Wan’s credit, he takes the potentially laughable idea of the demonic nun and makes it downright terrifying.
The family in question includes Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor), a single mother raising four children alone, Margaret (Lauren Esposito), her fourteen-year-old daughter, Janet (Madison Wolfe), the eleven-year-old who becomes the center of the disturbances for reason or reasons unknown, and the two younger brothers, Billy (Benjamin Haigh) and Johnny (Patrick McAuley). Billy and Johnny play only a peripheral, tangential role in the proceedings. Billy stutters and loves biscuits with a near pathological intensity. Johnny, however, has little in the way of discernible traits or interests. It’s Billy who, one late night, encounters a superficially playful apparition who apparently really likes Billy’s battery-powered fire-truck. But it’s Janet, emotionally fragile due to her parents’ separation and a frequent, fretful sleepwalker, who encounters the vengeful, armchair-loving spirit who claims the Hodgson home as his own. The fear of sex, sexuality, and its inextricable link between them within Catholicism, not to mention the subtextual fear of autonomous, unrepressed women, lingers over Janet’s increasingly bizarre, disturbing behavior.
Eventually, a modest hell breaks loose in the Hodgson household. Objects fly through the air, loud thumping emanates from the walls, and an invisible knocker tries to gain access to Janet and Margaret’s bedroom. Janet’s emotional fragility makes her an easy mark – assuming she’s not a world-class prankster, that is, an idea Wan dismisses with little more than a hand wave and a shoulder shrug – for whatever demonic presence has decided to stalk Janet and her vulnerable family. It takes the better part of an hour, however, before the Warrens finally jump into a plane headed for England. By then, paranormal researchers, including a debunker, and the media have turned the Hodgson haunting into national, if not international, news. It’s right up with the Amityville haunting apparently, a connection Wan labors to make via a prologue set in the notorious Amityville home and briefly convinces Lorraine to hang up the rosary beads for a life of quiet, comfortable domesticity. The Amityville experience also gives Lorraine the vision of a roller-skating, demonic nun (minus the roller-skates) who closely resembles Marilyn Manson (seriously).
To Wan’s credit, he takes the potentially laughable idea of the demonic nun and makes it downright terrifying. Like Janet with her obsessive spirit stalker, Lorraine has to repeatedly fend off the demonic nun, potentially risking Ed and the Hodgson family’s well-being by bringing the demonic nun with her across the Atlantic Ocean. Or maybe the demonic nun was always waiting for her in England. It doesn’t really. What does matter, however, is Wan’s skill in crafting fiendishly clever set pieces from seemingly familiar genre tropes. Everything we’ve seen before in other, lesser horror films we see again, but with just enough variation, with just difference, to make us scared all over again. Wan delivers one spine-chilling scare after another through The Conjuring 2’s running time, but even a filmmaker of Wan’s talent level and skill set should know when enough is enough. Unfortunately, he doesn’t. By the time the end credits roll and the obligatory juxtaposition of the real-life characters and their onscreen counterparts flash across the screen, it doesn’t feel cathartic as much as it does exhausting.
Wan’s skill in crafting fiendishly clever set pieces from seemingly familiar genre tropes. Everything we’ve seen before in other, lesser horror films we see again, but with just enough variation, with just difference, to make us scared all over again.