Last night, I was lucky enough to score a pair of passes to see an advance screening of The Conjuring 2 at the Alamo. As a fan of The Conjuring and of James Wan’s films in general, I admit to feeling a rare thrill when that title crawled up the wide, wide screen in giant yellow letters.
Whatever you may think of the stories that he’s chosen to tell, James Wan has proven himself time and again to be an expert genre filmmaker. The only real exception, for me, is the original Saw, and even it has the distinction of being more enjoyable than the vast majority of the stuff that it inspired. Whether or not you’ll be with me for the rest of this post probably depends a lot upon how much you agree with that statement.
As for The Conjuring 2, it is to The Conjuring as Insidious Chapter 2 is to Insidious. Which is to say that, once again, James Wan has resisted taking the easy way out of making a movie that is just the first one with a bigger budget, and instead taken the opportunity afforded by a sequel to make something slower and hokier and talkier and driven more by the characters than by the spirits that haunt and oppress them.
What I think are extremely mild spoilers follow…
I love the original Conjuring and think that it is objectively probably James Wan’s best film, but I am intrinsically less interested in it and its sequel than I am in the Insidious franchise. The reason for this is simply that the Conjuring films are handicapped by the reality of the Warrens and their Catholic mythology, as opposed to the more brazen comic book netherworld posited by Insidious and its sequels. However, The Conjuring 2 expands that mythology as much as it can, taking it to some interesting places. And when Lorraine calls someone the “Marquis of Snakes,” I must confess that I heard Peter Stormare’s voice in head purring, “I do miss the old names.”
From a purely mechanical standpoint, The Conjuring may be a better movie than its sequel–to be fair, from a purely mechanical standpoint, The Conjuring is damn near perfect–but whether you enjoy this one as much or less or more will probably depend a little on what you want out of it. For me, I’m not sure how I’ll ultimately feel. I know that I liked The Conjuring 2, but just how much will take repeat viewings to suss out. I think it was Guillermo del Toro who said something to the effect that the first time you watch a movie, it’s a flirtation. The second time is a date. I more or less subscribe to that school of thought, and I feel like The Conjuring 2 is a movie that will demonstrate different strengths–and possibly different weaknesses–upon subsequent viewings.
I was, for example, initially disappointed with how cartoonish the Crooked Man looked–my first thought the first time he showed up was that he looked very like something out of Death Note–but later in the film I remembered that he was supposed to be a spirit masquerading as a cartoon character from a children’s toy, and realized that his cartoonishness was probably an aesthetic choice, rather than simply dodgy effects. Does that mean that I like it now? I’m not sure, but I do think it’ll change my approach to it on a second viewing.
I feel like we are unused to movies like this rewarding us for paying attention. We have a tendency to feel like movies that rely a lot on jump scares are also going to require us to, if not turn off our brains, then at least reduce our critical capacities at the door. I keep seeing reviewers asking why the family doesn’t just move, but the original Conjuring (not to mention Insidious) put that question to rest early on, and while this one doesn’t actively restate the thesis, it does make the futility of moving pretty clear the night the family sleeps over at a neighbor’s house. I also noticed some extremely heavy foreshadowing–though foreshadowing what I didn’t know at the time–during a couple of sequences in the Warrens’ house that I expected the movie to come back and tap me on the shoulder with much harder than it ever actually did.
As with Insidious Chapter 2, what impressed me the most about The Conjuring 2, on first viewing, were the risks that it was willing to take with the sequel formula. While The Conjuring was pretty heavily focused around a specific escalation of events, The Conjuring 2 is more freed up to ramble. And while the films may ultimately have more similarities than differences–the possession/exorcism angle, the family full of children, the cluttered basement, the kinds of scares that have become staples of Wan’s spectral filmmaking oeuvre–it’s the places where they differ that stand out the most.
One of these is Wan’s willingness to let the flow of the movie be driven more by story than by action. In Insidious Chapter 2 it was a murder mystery, in this it is the throughline of Lorraine’s visions and the possible hoax aspects of their work. Another is Wan’s obvious love of trappings that would be too hokey for most modern filmmakers. There may not be any straight-faced falling chandelier bits or sheeted ghosts in The Conjuring 2, like there were in Insidious Chapter 2, but there are an evil nun and an honest-to-god haunted painting.
Another bold move is the choice to use Amityville–without a doubt the most famous case with which the Warrens have ever been involved–as the film’s “cold opening,” an approach that got an audible reaction from the theatre in which I saw the movie. And, without going into any detail, The Conjuring 2 ends on a touching note, rather than an ominous one.
As with its predecessor, The Conjuring 2 makes the wise choice of resting most of its scares upon the backs of its characters, relying on small character moments to ground the film’s more outlandish elements and give them a sense of immediacy. Pretty much everyone turns in strong performances–it was weird to recognize Franka Potente in a small role as a skeptical investigator–especially Madison Wolfe as the young girl at the focal point of the haunting.
Once again, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga (taking the lead here, to a large extent) do a lot to help you forget whatever your feelings may be about the real life Ed and Lorraine Warren. And if you weren’t yet sure that the characters had moved to someplace very distinct from their real world counterparts by this point, there’s the fact that the screenwriters of the first movie (who co-wrote this one along with Wan and David Johnson) get a “based on characters created by” credit in the film’s opening.
There may not be any moment in The Conjuring 2 that is as iconic as the “hide and clap” scene or some of the others in the original film, but it also never feels like it is trying to one-up its predecessor. Instead of focusing as heavily on the mechanics of horror, Wan has taken the goodwill generated by The Conjuring and made a sequel that stretches new muscles. In a field where we’re all very tired of getting the same thing over and over again, especially from our horror franchises, that seems like something worth celebrating.