Film Review: The Conjuring 2 (2016)

Considering its high box office and favorable reviews, a sequel to 2013’s The Conjuring always had a feeling of inevitability. This year’s unimaginatively titled The Conjuring 2 fulfills this possibility, reuniting director James Wan, stars Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, and screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes in the process. Working together, this team offers up another effectively rendered piece of period horror; although it hardly breaks new ground. Despite impressive visuals, performances and an ambitious scope, The Conjuring 2 isn’t a transporting plunge into darkness. Instead, it revels in the type of spastic scares that are now synonymous with the horror genre. This type of haunted-house-style, thrill-a-minute formula can be fun in a theater but is almost always fleeting. Its effect typically disperses before you even throw away the remainder of your XXXXXXXL popcorn.

At multiple points during The Conjuring 2’s first half I found myself wishing that I still wore a watch. The film takes its sweet time setting up its premise, examining the plight of the Hodgson family with almost mind-numbing repetition. Similar to the Perron family from the original Conjuring, the Hodgsons find themselves menaced early in the film by what appears to be supernatural forces. Protagonists and paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Wilson and Farmiga) are relegated to secondary and almost peripheral figures during these early scenes, taking center stage only when the turmoil of the Hodgsons draws the attention of the law and the clergy.

What is grating about this structure is that Wan and Co. do little to extrapolate on what are genuinely intriguing circumstances. The Hodgson family is certainly an unconventional one, defined by its location in England, and its matriarchal head of the household (Francis O’Conner’s Peggy). It is also a family clearly mired in the grinding nature of late-70s poverty, with its shabby council house proving itself an absorbing setting.

Despite a few subtle details, such as the smallest member of the family (Benjamin Haigh) being an adorable, stuttering cherub, audiences learn very little about the Hodgsons. This has dire consequences for when the Warrens finally do decide to put their ghost-loving butts on the case, making it difficult to develop much in the way of emotional investment.

More successful is the exploration of the Warrens themselves, particularly Farmiga’s Lorraine. Following the public notoriety generated by their activities in the first film, Lorraine finds herself prone to borderline panic attacks, tormented by visions (or premonitions) of Ed violently dying. When these are accompanied by visitations from a demon that looks like a mixture of a nun and Voldemort, Lorraine becomes highly reticent to accept a new assignment, only agreeing to travel to England and investigate the Hodgson’s misery with great reluctance.

As you might have guessed, the basic formula of The Conjuring 2 is a carbon copy of the original horror film, with all major components appearing again in some form or another. One might even be able to get away with taking a “cat nap” during the film’s first half, and then pop awake in the second; you wouldn’t really miss anything. The story gains traction however in its later half, setting up a theme of alienation that is at times quite powerful. One scene in particular, a quiet moment of conversation between Famiga’s Lorraine and Madison Wolfe’s periodically possessed Janet Hodgson, is one of the film’s best moments. It communicates this notion of alienation, but also the salvation offered by love. It is also here where Wan offers a rare moment of restraint, suggesting the possibility of supernatural violence not through scary faces unexpectedly popping out, but through terrifying words uttered by the terrific Wolfe.

In fact, many of the actors in The Conjuring 2 are quite good, although the material they have to work with varies dramatically by part. The troop of actors that give life to the Hodgson family are all serviceable, evoking simple, blunt and abject terror with relative ease. Stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Famiga benefit from having actual characters to play; although, similar to the first Conjuring, they don’t exactly feel like a romantic couple. This is not to say that their dynamic is devoid of chemistry, simply that they come off as more chummy than anything else. The one verbal indication that they are sexually involved feels awkward and even mildly creepy, like learning the intimate details of your own blood relatives.

Wan and his screenwriters put these actors through the wringer, throwing them into intense scene after intense scene. By now a seasoned veteran of the genre (perhaps too seasoned), Wan is highly adept at cultivating scares. He and his team create at least a half-dozen truly frightening moments, and his actors are able to easily maneuver through these bursts of terror.

Interspersed throughout these effective yet frankly repetitive moments, however, are scenes that offer glimmers of a far more unconventional horror film. Working with DP Don Burgess, Wan produces key sequences that are less slam-bang in their approach, evoking menace through innovative spatial design and framing. For one such scene, which focuses on Lorraine discovering the true nature of the Hodgson’s supernatural problem, the filmmakers create a vision that turns a simple living room into what feels like the seventh circle of hell. It is a virtuoso set piece, and one that feels like The Conjuring 2 is attempting to throw off the very shackles of its formula.

Of course, such a moment is little more than empty posturing and not simply due to how The Conjuring 2 quickly reverts back to a whiplash-inducing jolt-a-thon. The Conjuring 2 never fully embraces the darkness imbued in its best scenes, instead employing a thematic framework where God’s power is a perpetual vanguard against the darkness, capable of turning lethal demons into laughable boogeymen.

This speaks to a larger issue, and not solely about The Conjuring 2 but about the genre in which it exists. Even the darkest and best supernatural horror films repeatedly place human beings at the center of their world, and have their story’s events orbit around the notion that humans are critically important. Personally, a far more disturbing situation would be a film where human beings don’t matter, where heavenly power cannot be employed with the simple raising of a crucifix, and where demons aren’t merely dead humans attempting to work through unresolved issues. These are tales that involve real acts of storytelling bravery, where artists create worlds that are fundamentally not ok but are ok with it. This isn’t the world of The Conjuring 2. The film does not exist in a place where anything can happen. This doesn’t mean that it’s not fun, but it isn’t allowed to reach the echelon of truly horrific horror. It remains a slight, superficial thrill ride, where demons may be real, but so too is the assurance of safety and salvation.

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