James Wan returns to the horror genre with The Conjuring 2, and it pretty much cements his position as the major player in mainstream horror today, despite some inescapable — and hardly insignificant — problems with his latest. I have championed Wan’s horror pictures from Dead Silence (2007) through Insidious (2010), Insidious Chapter 2 (2013) and, to a lesser extent, The Conjuring (2013). That qualifier on the last is why I approached the new film with some trepidation, which was both borne out and not. On the plus side, it fixes one of the major problems of its predecessor by providing a big climax worthy of all the creepy buildup. It also manages to side-step some of the more risible aspects of the earlier film. That is not the whole story, however. First of all, there’s the 133 minute running time. The film could have lost 30 minutes — including its mini-Amityville Horror segment at the beginning (which is actually pretty good in itself) — and been the better for it. But that’s not all.
While I don’t begrudge any movie — especially a horror film — from playing fast and loose with the facts, The Conjuring 2 insists on elevating the ghost-hunting duo of Ed and Lorraine Warren (played once again by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) to truly absurd levels. The film makes the real-life Warrens’ penchant for exaggeration and self-mythologizing look like the very definition of humility. Here, they are not only downright saintly, but unfairly persecuted by nonbelievers. (The film barely skirts the realm of faith-based movies.) Banana oil. It is not perhaps surprising that very soon after the claims of “based on true events,” we find the disclaimer that the film is “based on characters created by Carey and Chad Hayes.” The truth is that the largely debunked “Enfield haunting,” or “Enfield poltergeist,” the movie is built on had precious little to do with the Warrens. They showed up — quite uninvited — and observed for one day. It was certainly not the Warrens going best two-out-of-three falls with a demon. In short, it’s outright hooey. That, however, does not keep it from being a pretty swell horror movie of the kind that Wan is very, very good at. In that regard, The Conjuring 2 is a winner.
In the world of the movie, the Warrens are called in by representatives of the Catholic Church to verify whether the events at a shabby council house (public housing) in the London borough of Enfield actually involve a case of possession. (Of course, they are. Otherwise, we’d have no story.) The film overall is a reasonably basic possession/haunted house movie with its roots in The Exorcist (1973) and Poltergeist (1982) — with a few nods to The Sentinel (1977), The Shining (1980) and The Babadook (2014). You have your usual bed-shakings, invisibly propelled furniture, spooky voices coming from the mouth of a young girl, etc. You know the drill by now, though I admit I never saw a spirit so intent on changing channels to prevent the object of its possession from watching The Goodies TV show. And I was certainly unaware of the Rumplestiltskin factor in dealing with demons.
But what sets the movie apart — aside from a clever script (the business with the two tape recordings is a neat chill) and an effective shift late in the film — is the horror craftsmanship of James Wan. He may be working familiar ground, and the overall sense may be no more than a spectacularly effective spook house, but he has an unusual mastery of the genre. His shock effects are among the best ever. I’d say he has them down to a science, but it’s more of an art. The sense of just when to use one seems more inherent than calculated.
The films are atmospheric in a way where every dark corner might conceal a fresh horror, while his almost constantly moving camera seems ready to uncover something nasty at every turn. The pacing of his individual set pieces is just right — and then there is Wan’s startling sense of what is creepy. What scares you, or at least creeps you out, is very personal and probably related to something from childhood. Whatever the reason, Wan has an unerring knack for what gets to me. (And others, judging by the box office.) The Mary Shaw character in Dead Silence, the lipstick-faced demon in Insidious, the black bride in both Insidious and Insidious: Chapter 2, the mother in Insidious: Chapter 2 are all nightmares come to life on the screen. To this we may now add the Crooked Man and especially the demonic nun. There’s a primal fear in Wan’s bogeys that transcends the basic disbelief inherent in such tales — and lingers long after the movie is over. That in itself makes these films worth having. Rated R for terror and horror violence.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemark, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande.