The Conjuring 2 (James Wan, 2016)
There’s a scene in The Conjuring 2—very early on in the movie, so this isn’t a spoiler of any sort—that really drives home how important cinematography is to an effective horror film. It starts with Billy Hodgson (Benjamin Haigh in his feature debut) has just gone downstairs to get a glass of water, and is sleepily on his way back up to bed. When he gets to the second floor, he stubs his toe on one of his toy fire trucks. After turning off the annoying light and sound features, he nudges it with his foot so it rolls into the tent he has erected in an alcove just at the top of the stairs. He stumbles back to his room. The camera moves with him, and the tent is always in the background. He almost gets there when there’s a sound of grinding metal, which we know is the sound the fire truck makes when it rolls across the floor, and the sirens go off very briefly—less than a second. He pauses for a moment, decides he must have been hearing things, and keeps on back to bed. As he’s getting ready, we can see a small portion of the tent through the doorway. The bottom of what we can see is about waist-high, so if you know anything at all about horror films, you’re expecting something to come bursting out of that tent. Instead, we hear the lights and sirens again, and cinematographer Don Burgess cuts to the bottom of the doorframe just as the fire truck comes rolling slowly up to the doorjamb. It’s just a beautifully shot scene, playing with the audience’s expectations and demolishing them at every turn, and it sets up the viewer to expect that this is not going to be your average horror film, at least not from the DP’s perspective. (If you search “conjuring 2 fire engine” on YouTube, you’ll find the sequence that happens just after this.)
The plot: paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, reprising their roles from the original) are back. As we open, they’re investigating what may be the most famous haunted house case in all of American folklore: the Amityville Horror. During their investigation, Lorraine has a horrifying vision of a demonic nun (The Fighter‘s Bonnie Aarons), and another vision of Ed’s death (she also had one during the first film). After their investigation is complete, Lorraine asks Ed to back off on taking new cases for a while, and he agrees. Of course, Mother Church has other plans. After we’ve gotten to know the Hodgson family, from Enfield, North London (the fire truck scene is in that bit of the film), a priest asks the Warrens to go and observe the family to see if the haunting is real or some sort of elaborate hoax. Lorraine is hesitant, but eventually agrees to it, and the two of them are off to see Billy and family—mother Peggy (The Hunter‘s Frances O’Connor), brother Johnny (Patrick McAuley in his screen debut) and sisters Margaret (Love Child‘s Lauren Esposito) and Janet (Keanu‘s Madison Wolfe), the last of whom seems to be the focal point of the family’s hauntings. Domestically, the family has been investigated by two researchers. Maurice Grosse (The Last King of Scotland‘s Simon McBurney) is a firm believer that the hauntings are real; Anita Gregory (Anatomy‘s Franka Potente) is equally convinced the entire thing is a hoax. Both work with the Warrens, each with the objective of proving their side of the controversy.
I’m an unabashed fan of James Wan’s work, and I have yet to see a movie of his I haven’t enjoyed. The Conjuring 2 is no different; he is excellent at getting the creepy out of such mundane things as a swingset. And I’ll tell you that if you go and see this one, I think you’re going to have a great time. That’s not to say it’s not without its flaws. The period-piece soundtrack is just overbearing, unless you’re the world’s biggest fan of mid-seventies British music. The romance subplot rings false a time or two, but that is a minor thing, especially since much of it seemed to be there in the time-honored tradition of lessening the tension in order to make the next creeptastic scene that much creepier. A few of the characters seem to be there to be used in a single scene apiece; I’m putting this down to this being based on a true story, however close to the actual truth it might be. And Wan tries a Dario Argento move, concealing a crucial piece of plot information early in the film. Suffice to say James Wan is not as subtle as Dario Argento. And that’s saying something. All of these, however, are minor problems indeed, and none of them detracts from the film’s effectiveness. If you liked the first one, you’ll have no problems with this one, either. *** ½
BONUS! As I get older, I am forced to admit that my oh-so-clever subtitles are less recognizable to more people. So here.