Director: James Wan
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Madison Wolfe
Spoilers Within: Yes
In 2013 James Wan made a third franchise starter with the critically cheered The Conjuring, which followed true-life paranormal demonologists Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) as they’re summoned to a secluded farmhouse to rid a family of pesky demons. Audiences loved it, and although it was a diverting haunted house movie, it recalled multiple, more accomplished horrors rather than stand on its own.
Its sequel transposes the Warrens to Enfield, London, where one of the most historically famous hauntings – ‘The Enfield Poltergeist’ – took place. Janet Hodgson’s possession has been at the crest of paranormal stories for decades, and though it’s been written about and referenced many times, it’s never had the full Hollywood treatment until now.
The Conjuring 2 is not entirely bad – I’d certainly cherish it over the threatened Annabelle sequel – but it frequently strains its own world’s credibility by basking in needless ghoulish visions and prescient, dream-like stretches. A few of these CGI ghouls desperately scream of an attempt to forge a new post-Millennial villain similar to Vorhees or Kreuger, and with news of The Nun spin-off, this seems a plainer grab at doing just that. It’s like a cinema attempt of unnaturally forcing a viral video or a meme, everything here feels inorganic and corny. The creation of these devilish manifestations also seem worthless when the scariest moments are those that are more in line with the horrors of reality: Madison Wolfe’s Janet tormented by both a puppeteered demon and her schoolmates allegations of dishonesty or prophetic dreams showing the death of a loved one are far better realised than the laugh-out-loud demon in a painting or the Crooked Man phantasm. The latter implied last minute studio interference rather than Wan’s own decisions; a seemingly cheap cash-in on recent genre successes like The Babadook.
There’s a lot less threat here with the knowledge that this is already a franchise with two off-shoots and a third installment down the line, so the prophetical nightmares of Ed’s death led to exaggerated moments of escalation that began far too early, and by the end seemed like a far-fetched, Rube Golberg-esque catastrophe that felt entirely at odds with its real-life basis. This blockbuster-ised finale – an obvious bid to one-up the stakes of the rather good basement exorcism from its ancestor – played it completely straight when it perhaps should have been a bit goofier in order to fit in line with its haunted house mood. Wan succeeded in balancing this goofiness in Insidious, but his desire to make a more serious horror with this franchise is a misstep when it’s filled to the brim with silliness, whether intentional or not. His skill as a director is undeniable, and he’s certainly got an eye for the spooky, but where Insidious expertly balanced the silly with the scary, here it’s hard to focus on a marital love story when there’s an old man waiting in the shadows, or a little cockney boy repeatedly stuttering about biscuits.
Had the film taken the opening of the Amityville murders and run with that, it would have been a far more interesting film to watch. That story has been told, but as far as I know, not from the perspective of the paranormal investigators. By exhausting this story before the titles, Wan and Co. have obliterated any chance of co-opting this into a full-length sequel that could have balanced the cruel massacre with the perpetrator’s initial accounts of possession. Juggling the murderer’s perspective and the subsequent trial with the Warrens’ investigations into whether or not he was possessed would have made for a great spin on the story: squandering this potential by radically shifting to England simply made the following 2+ hours (itself a hugely excessive runtime) a huge letdown.
In all, it was a distracting mess made worse by a ludicrously elaborate finale and some heinous accents (the boy’s stammer just about ruined it), but I’d gladly take this over its spin-offs any day. I’d be interested to see if Wan could make a ghost story with more atmospheric subtlety, but until he does, I suppose The Conjuring is the best the genre has to offer.