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Non-Review Review: The Conjuring 2

The Conjuring 2 is effectively a tentpole horror.

It is very much a horror film, with James Wan demonstrating all the skill and technique that he had honed over years working in the genre. There some wonderful slow pans and creepy camera movements that emphasise negative space, some very effective use of timing and mounting dread, and a palpable sense of menace. There are jump scares and slow scares, and enough false alarms to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. The Conjuring 2 is in many ways an old-school archetypal horror film.

He ain't afraid of no ghost...

He ain’t afraid of no ghost…

However, there is something interesting happening in the background. The Conjuring 2 might have all the basic ingredients of a horror movie, but they are assembled in the style of a tentpole blockbuster. To be fair, the big summer release date is a bit of a clue, as is the climax that features a sweeping race-against-time as the heroes try to desperately make it back from the train station. Indeed, The Conjuring already launched something of a shared horror universe with the spin-off Annabelle.

In some respects, The Conjuring 2 feels like something of a mash-up, reflecting contemporary pop culture’s fascination with mashing existing concepts together to form intriguing cocktails. What is really surprising about the film is how well it works.

"I'm sorry, you wouldn't happen to be able to direct me to the Marilyn Manson concert, would you?"

“I’m sorry, you wouldn’t happen to be able to direct me to the Marilyn Manson concert, would you?”

Everything about The Conjuring 2 is supersized. Even the film itself runs over two hours and a quarter, which is a somewhat extended runtime for a horror movie. There are some segments in the second act that could be tightened or trimmed, but Wan makes good use of the extra time in the film’s opening act to ramp up to the movie’s scares. As with a lot of horror films hinging on jump scares, the anticipation is the most effective aspect. Wan is shrewd enough to understand that the longer runtime affords him more time to build those early effective sequences.

Nevertheless, the structure of The Conjuring 2 owes more to contemporary blockbuster cinema than to classic horror. The movie is structured with a teaser unfolding in the iconic Amityville House, which provides a nice sense of mood and an early set piece while also setting up ideas that will come into play later. Akin to the opening battle sequence in The Avengers: Age of Ultron or the pre-credits scene of Ant Man, it serves to establish tone and character before the actual plot kicks in. (Like those movies, the teaser is even separated by title card.)

Conjurers assemble!

Conjurers assemble!

Again, much like the ubiquitous “shared universe” films that dominate contemporary blockbuster cinema, there is a clear and conscious effort to build an “epic” narrative. The Conjuring 2 is structured as more than just a “simple” haunting. It is not enough for the movie to focus on the Enfield Poltergeist, the film ports in a whole lot of mythology and foreshadowing to build up an even larger threat lurking in the shadows. There is also a shot that places Annabelle quite conspicuously in case the audience forgets that The Conjuring is already something of a franchise.

There are lots of other little touches that help to make The Conjuring 2 feel like something of a hybrid rather than simply a generic horror film. Ed and Lorraine Warren are presented as something approaching superheroes, with Ed lamenting the sheer power of a demon that can “cloud Lorraine’s psyche” and the pair offering earnest life-changing advice to a family in desperate need. There is a rain-soaked declaration of love, and a heartbreaking gesture of sacrifice. The climax hinges on a tense suspense-driven set piece rather than an exorcism or ritual.

Steady, Eddy...

Steady, Eddy…

On paper, it sound like none of this should work. After all, these are not elements that mesh easily with the expectations of a conventional horror film. It is to the credit of James Wan that the film shifts tone so easily and readily. The Conjuring 2 is self-aware without drowning in irony. There are a number of sequences in which Ed and Lorraine Warren seem to serve as life coaches rather than demonologists, fixing plumbing and offering sincere advice rather than administering rites or documenting the paranormal.

The Conjuring 2 has an endearing levity in these sorts of moments, sparing a few moments to allow Patrick Wilson and his sideburns the opportunity to cover Fools Rush In or remark on how light weight a late seventies video camera is. This affords the movie a charm that keeps the runtime from dragging, and which allows its talented cast to do more than scream and cower. Ed and Lorraine Warren are never fully three-dimensional characters, but they do feel somewhat richer than most horror movie protagonists.

"If that demon doesn't show itself, I'm gonna be mighty cross."

“If that demon doesn’t show itself, I’m gonna be mighty cross.”

It helps that Wan has assembled a strong cast. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are rather unlikely leads for what is in financial and cultural terms a blockbuster franchise, both working more as character actors than as leads. However, the eccentric nature of that casting works to the film’s benefit. Wilson and Farmiga are both phenomenal actors who are capable of managing the shifts demanded by the script and in delivering what might otherwise be awkward exposition or heavy-handed dialogue with considerable skill.

As written, Ed and Lorraine Warren could easily be reduced to parody. The characters are incredibly wholesome. They are explicitly religious, to the point that Lorraine falls asleep reading her bible and Ed talks about how he relies on God to kick a demon’s ass. They dispense life advice and counselling to a troubled family, with Ed repairing the house itself as Lorraine repairs relationships. These could easily become caricatures. However, through a combination of Wan’s direction and Wilson and Farmiga’s performances, the film keeps on an even keel.

"C'mon honey, we can hang next to my sad clown and demonic dog paintings."

“C’mon honey, we can hang next to my sad clown and demonic dog paintings.”

There is an endearing groundedness to The Conjuring 2, despite these epic trappings and the hints of a larger mythology. Wan understands that he is not directing a gritty kitchen sink drama, and that there is only so much development he can afford the innocent family being victimised by the sinister spirits. However, The Conjuring 2 finds just enough room to prevent the victims from seeming like paper cut-outs, small details like the younger daughter caught literally holding a cigarette and a young son nursing a stutter.

Wan and his writers fundamentally understand the genre within which they are working. As with The Conjuring, the sequel is a supernatural period piece. It condenses the two years of the Enfield Poltergeist case down to one extended year, setting the action against the backdrop of 1977. This reflects a broader cultural nostalgia for the seventies, as distinct from the sixties nostalgia that was ubiquitous only a few years ago. The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 fit comfortably alongside films like The Nice Guys or Inherent Vice or X-Men: Days of Future Past.

"James, I realise you're going for retro here, but I can't see any ghosts if you keep shining that light on my eyes."

“James, I realise you’re going for retro here, but I can’t see any ghosts if you keep shining that light on my eyes.”

Certainly, The Conjuring 2 takes a great deal of pleasure in its setting. Moving the action across the Atlantic Ocean affords the film a sense of novelty, and The Conjuring 2 revels in the trappings of its British surroundings. London is introduced to the chords of the (allowably) anachronistic London’s Calling. As with a short cameo from Magaret Thatcher later on, there is a sense that The Conjuring 2 is not so much evoking the specific detail of a time and place, but rather exploring the cultural memory.

The council estate upon which the horror unfolds is gleeful stylised. The central house is at once impossibly large in order to accommodate Wan’s sweeping camera and impossibly grotty to underscore just how creepy it is. (There is a much more reasonably proportioned and maintained house just across the road.) It doesn’t take too long for two British bobbies show up in a distinctive police car. It seems to be always raining. It is a minor miracle that nobody in the film needs to use a red phone box.

"We're going to need to see your garage. Or, as you English people call it, your stable."

“We’re going to need to see your garage. Or, as you English people call it, your stables.”

Wan homes in on the key themes that defined so many of these haunted house films, understanding how those themes might resonate with contemporary culture. In many ways, haunted house films – as typified by The Amityville Horror – are fundamentally economic horrors in which the largest investment that a family will ever make turns into something hostile and monstrous. There is a reason these films are popular during global recessions and periods of economic uncertainty.

This is true even beyond the horror stories themselves. When the Lutz family admitted to faking the Amityville haunting, they confessed that they were driven by economic motivations. Both The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 understand that haunted house stories are fundamentally about the idea of the home itself becoming hostile, in a manner that is frequently economic. In fact, The Conjuring 2 frequently frames its paranormal activity in terms that are explicitly economic.

Just kidding around.

Just kidding around.

Before the first real incident, we hear the mother of the household on the phone, complaining that her ex-husband is refusing to pay child support. When her youngest son asks why she didn’t pick up an biscuits, she responds, “I didn’t pick up any bleedin’ biscuits because I haven’t any bleedin’ money.” Asked why the family would fake a haunting on this scale, the team’s sceptic responds, “She’s using this thing to force the council to move them to a bigger house.” At one point, it is implied that the haunting is happening because the father had been too broke to buy new furniture.

Wan has a bit of fun with this idea. A forgiveable anachronistic touch makes good use of Margaret Thatcher’s “Iron Lady” speech to build a palpable and mounting sense of dread while suggesting that the horrors unfolding in the narrative might reflect broader anxieties and uncertainies. The Conjuring 2 never leans too heavily on any of these core themes and ideas, but there is enough care and craft in these background details that the film feels like more than just a half-hearted imitation of classic horror, but a film that understands the genre.

"All right, who's been messing with my crucifix collection?"

“All right, who’s been messing with my crucifix collection?”

The film’s scares are effective, if not exceptional. Horror films have generally struggled to adapt to the era of computer-generated imagery. Somehow uncanny imagery is less scary when it is rendered in pixels that viewers know to be malleable. The Conjuring 2 has a number of such scares undercut by obvious visual tinkering, including those built around a “crooked man” demon that seems to exist so that The Conjuring 2 can make an affectionate nod towards the contemporary “slender man” mythos.

However, Wan deserves a great deal of credit for his more subtle use of digital tools. There is a scene early on where Wan skilfully wipes in characters behind Elizabeth Warren as she walks, a sequence more effective for being positioned as a creepy moment rather than a jump scare. At another point, Wan uses digital morphing during a long take in which the subject is kept skilfully out of focus. It is a very nifty visual trick that would likely have been impossible only a decade or two ago, and which is all the more effective for being underplayed.

"I'm sorry to be insistent, but I really need to get to that concert."

“I’m sorry to be insistent, but I really need to get to that concert.”

To be fair, there are more than a few moments where The Conjuring 2 feels a little too bloated or a little too big. The movie oversells its primary antagonist somewhat, to the point that it feels strange to structure a horror film so it has the standard tentpole “mini-boss” and “big bad.” At the same time, Wan does include a number of nice subliminal visual clues that provide a nice easter egg that comes into play at the climax of the film. At one point, Lorraine speculates she has already been shown the name of her enemy; Wan has skilfully already shown it to the audience.

The Conjuring 2 is an effective blockbuster horror film, a combination that works much better than it really should. Wan understands that two modes in which he is working, and his skill at balancing the demands of both genres. It is fascinating watch, a film that works more compellingly as a weird hybrid than it does as a straightforward example of either of its component elements.

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