Monday, June 13, 2016

We've Got Spirits, Yes We Do!

For our Scream 101 episode about this film, click here.

Year: 2016
Director: James Wan
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Frances O'Connor
Run Time: 2 hours 14 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Really, the most spectacular thing about The Conjuring 2 is that original director James Wan actually returned for it after being offered a revolting amount of money to helm Furious 8. This is only the second sequel Wan has directed to one of his own films. While I was excited to see him returning for the follow-up to his pretty unequivocal best work, the last time he sequelized a movie, things got a little ugly. So it was with more than a little trepidation that I approached this one, but I can now officially say with a sigh of relief that The Conjuring 2 is leagues better than Insidious: Chapter 2.

Although that bar is so low it’s practically subterranean.

So, the plot. The Conjuring 2 has a more satisfying, tighter story than the original, although it necessarily runs into some of the same pitfalls: this film still has no idea whether it’s dealing with a ghost or a demon and in the process of telling its “true story” it continues to stolidly profess the undying verisimilitude of infamous paranormal hucksters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), something that always rubs my ectoplasm the wrong way.

But anyway, this – after all – is just a movie. It’s 1977. The Warrens are taking a sabbatical after an experience at a haunted house in Amityville (never heard of it)  has left Lorraine rattled. Their post-Amityville media tour has also gone haywire, with naysayers denying their claims left and right. When the church asks them to investigate a happening in England  (to make sure it’s not just one more of a rash of hoaxes before they get involved), Ed convinces Lorraine to come along because they never deny a family in need.

The family in question is down-on-her-luck matriarch Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four children. Her youngest girl, Janet (Madison Wolfe) has become a conduit for a spirit who died in their house that has been tormenting them for weeks, or so they claim. Is this a real paranormal event or a ploy to get better housing? The Warrens are joined by believer Dr. Gross (Simon McBurney) and skeptic Anita Gregory (Franka Potente) to document the case.

Roll film, Lola, roll film!

There are certain things The Conjuring 2 does very well that utilize its nature as a sequel to actually better itself. The rapport between audiences and the Warrens has already been built, but instead of leaning on that crutch to paper up some quick and dirty exposition, screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes (with Wan) use this to deepen their relationship and take it to the next level. You see, around the edges of this taut little supernatural shocker is a surprisingly rich love story. It’s not the most complex work in the world, but Farmiga and Wilson nail their chemistry. And the film’s structure commits to its tone, never allowing the romance to fade into the background, even in the gonzo third act setpiece where most movies of this ilk seem to forget that they were even telling a story at all, converting their characters into shrieking pinballs.

Now, the structure of the A-plot is a whole nother ballgame. While it’s much more linear and straightforward than the tangled mess woven by The Conjuring, at times it’s a hair too eager to tie up its loose ends. Two key plot points in the finale are solved with deus ex machina so brutally efficient that they shear off all but the barest residue of tension.

It’s a little too easy, like an episode of Dora the Explorer has been spliced onto the finale of an R-rated ghost story. Plus, the production design so viscerally yearns to foreshadow a third act reveal that you can practically feel it drooling over your shoulder. Imagine if M. Night Shyamalan had put little gravestones on Bruce Willis’ tie in The Sixth Sense, or put a huge poster of Ghost in his bedroom. This doesn’t ruin the flow of the movie in any terribly meaningful way, but it’s a bit of a letdown after a solid buildup.

I get let down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down, Hollywood.

A little better, a little worse. Seeing how this is a horror sequel, we should be glad to have any of the former, let alone in the abundance we get here. Before we move on, let’s step off at two more of these. First, the production design is astounding here, turning a crummy British subdivision into a gothic nightmare castle using oppressive slate greys, subtle decay, and a balls-to-the-wall flooded basement that makes an impression even among the endless parade of creepy basements that is the horror genre. And then there’s the comic relief, which is warm, perfectly spaced out, and genuinely humorous, striking a balance that the more overtly wacky Insidious movies haven’t yet achieved.

But what of the scares, Brennan? They are, after all, the reason $40 million worth of people went to see it this weekend. Rest assured, Wan brings his almost metronomic perfection at shooting and timing jump scares in a way that makes them seem unexpected and elegant. Of course, they’re only jump scares, but he does them so well. Probably the most chilling scene in the film is a single, drawn-out shot that slowly alters your perception of reality using camera focus, but – you know – the jumps are good too. There is a certain haphazard approach to the buildup of the scares, trundling out some Big Boos then expecting us to still get scared by rocking chairs and whatnot, but for the most part it gets the job done.

I’ve always said that James Wan has made a career out of cribbing tropes and elements from pre-existing horror classics and repackaging them for newer audiences. Of course that’s what happens here as well, although he has amassed a large enough body of work that he can start copying himself now, too: haunted toys, elderly ghosts, and women in face paint abound, along with quotations from The Exorcist (obviously), Poltergeist, The Haunting, and even newer properties like Sinister or Oculus. It gets a little wearisome at certain points, but the individual elements of the film are strong enough that even the weaker patches don’t dull the shine.

The Conjuring 2 is a terrific sequel, more or less succeeding at matching the tone and pace of the first film and even fostering some improvements. Its weaknesses are perhaps more glaring and bothersome, but you could hardly expect a better result for a haunted house Part 2.

TL;DR: The Conjuring 2 is a worthy sequel with some diminishing scares but the same sure-footed classicism as the original.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1149
Reviews In This Series
The Conjuring (Wan, 2013)
Annabelle (Leonetti, 2014)
The Conjuring 2 (Wan, 2016)

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