Try to imagine a world in which ghostly possessions were as commonplace, fatal, and unpredictable as cancer. A world in which every town had at least one exorcist that everyone knew and respected. A world in which everyone acknowledged the existence of malicious demons that can’t be hurt through physical means, and denying the paranormal would be like denying gravity or electricity.
I don’t want to get into whether or not I believe in any of that stuff, but I’m very grateful to live in a world where disbelief is an option at all.
The Conjuring 2 and its prequel are both based on the actual case files of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (respectively played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). This is effectively the franchise’s hook. There’s no overarching mythology, no thematic hook, and no recurring iconography worth mentioning (except maybe the Annabelle doll). The strongest gimmick this series has is that its films are “based on a true story”, and of course that only goes as far as you believe that any of this is true.
(Side note: There is technically a third recurring character, as Sterling Jerins returns to play the Warrens’ daughter a second time.)
That’s probably a significant reason why I don’t remember anything about the first film, except that I enjoyed it. But quite a bit came back to me as I was watching the second film.
The first movie opened with a prologue in which the Warrens dealt with another, earlier haunting. The second film opens with a prologue sequence that dives right into the storied Amityville haunting that made the Warrens so famous among paranormal researchers. The first prologue centered around a haunted Annabelle doll that was later given its own shitty spinoff. The second prologue involves a creepy nun ghost that is also getting its own (presumably shitty) spinoff.
(Side note: Reportedly, the nun was crowbarred in during reshoots well after principal photography had wrapped, and it shows.)
But of course that’s just the prologue. The main story is about a family with a ton of kids — most of whom are daughters — and all of them are being tormented by some kind of harmful spirit that’s possessed one of the girls. Which of the two films am I talking about? Exactly.
To be fair, the sequel takes place in England, which does kinda sorta bring a new flavor to the proceedings. This family is also headed by a struggling single mother (Peggy Hodgson, played by Frances O’Connor), so that makes the characters a touch more sympathetic. Also, the first film took some pretty awful liberties with regards to the Salem Witch Trials and there’s nothing like that in the sequel (that I know of, anyway).
That said, it’s not like the story has any shortage of stupid moments. After all, it’s kind of a given thing that horror films (with precious few exceptions) are fueled by the stupid choices of their characters. Even so, there were times when I seriously had to marvel at the ridiculous survival instincts of these characters. Without going into detail, let’s just say that some of them almost literally put their heads in the sand when they know that something dangerous is coming. Also, given how many times these characters have been stuck in their tracks by a door that slams shut and refuses to open, you’d think the Warrens would know enough by now to carry a fucking fireman’s axe right next to their crucifixes.
But what really annoys me is in how the main antagonist is defeated. Without getting into spoilers, I don’t know if there’s any more surefire sign of lazy writing than an antagonist that defeats itself. It’s not even like the protagonist tricks the villain into giving up some secret, it just pretty much falls into the Warrens’ lap. Even if there may be some assembly required, all the pieces are just handed over to the Warrens with no strings attached by the main villain itself. Utterly ludicrous.
But while the story is dumb, it stops short of being insultingly stupid. It also helps that Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Frances O’Connor, and young Madison Wolfe all anchor a strong cast of performances. The film is very strategic in its use of comic relief, music breaks, and other moments of love and warmth. In a battle over the souls of a family, reminding us of their basic humanity is imperative.
With all of that being said, what really matters in the end is whether the film is scary. This will naturally vary from one filmgoer to another, but I’ve got to say that this film series seems practically tailor-made for my kind of horror.
This is a horror series that’s much more about building a palpable sense of dread, rather than finding new ways of killing off its characters. It’s all about fear of the unknown, in those situations where we have no idea what’s out there and we don’t know what it can do, but we know it’s nothing good. Moreover, it’s not about the satisfaction of watching unsympathetic assholes get killed off, but rather about watching very sympathetic characters as they fight for survival against a seemingly unstoppable evil.
I don’t know if there’s another filmmaker out there right now who can deliver a scare the way James Wan can. With every edit and every camera pan, I felt compelled to crane my neck and try to see what was lurking just out of frame. His timing is impeccable, sometimes drawing out the suspense and other times delivering one scare after another, shaking things up to keep from falling into any kind of predictable rhythm.
The most terrifying moment is always the one that comes before the scare, in that moment when anything can happen, but we don’t know what or when. Wan understands that more clearly than just about any other filmmaker I could name. But there’s a serious downside: All those payoffs need setups. And oftentimes, to draw out the suspense, there can be A LOT of time between the setups and payoffs. This gets to be very annoying after the umpteenth close-up of some random object, which might as well come with a caption saying “REMEMBER THIS. It might be a red herring or it could be important at some point within the next hour.”
Special mention is due to Bob Adrian, who plays the malevolent ghost in question. The man is goddamn terrifying. I mean, I’m sure that a lot of movie magic was put into the character, but his voice was enough to make my skin crawl every time. His mere presence was enough to invoke heart-stopping panic with every moment he was onscreen.
Alas, not all of the spectres work nearly so well. I’m sure that the nun and the crooked man were both way better ideas in theory than in execution, and our fleeting glimpses of the latter demon showed some particularly lame CGI work.
All told, The Conjuring 2 and its prequel are both legitimately terrifying and ultimately forgettable. The film is well-crafted, with solid performances, chilling atmosphere, and plenty of great scares, but there’s nothing to stay with us after the credits have rolled. It doesn’t effectively build on anything from the previous film, and there’s no reason to wait for the third film.
As stand-alone movies, they’re both very effective as quick and enjoyable horror thrill rides. But I have a hard time justifying that as the foundation of an ongoing franchise. Especially a franchise that’s apparently trying to sprawl out into a massive Marvel-style shared continuity between multiple film series.
But I guess they’ll keep making these movies as long as we keep seeing them. And this is absolutely a film worth seeing.