The effective horror movie is elusive. Particularly in the “haunted house” genre. Everything’s pretty much been done before, leaving few surprises. The only thing left to do is put a twist on it. Or go back to basics.
Which is what director James Wan did a few years ago with his masterpiece The Conjuring. It was based on a haunting investigated by Ed and Lorraine Warren, two of the world’s leading and most-respected ghost hunters. Ed, now deceased, is also the ONLY non-Catholic ordained by the Catholic Church to perform exorcisms.
Actors Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson brought the Warrens to life. In doing so, they added a depth of humanity that is often missing from horror movies. Essentially, The Conjuring works because it’s relatable and realistic as possible.
The first movie took the Bob Fosse approach: less is more. Instead of assaulting us with in-your-face jump cuts at every turn turn in the house, Wan crafted the scares as if he worked for Habitat for Inhumanity.
There were very few computer special effects. Instead, Wan used classic Hollywood trickery – groaning floorboards, agoraphobic wide angles, moody lighting, and lots of dead silence. When every horror movie out there is loud enough to shatter ear drums with a cacophony of over-edited sound effects and screaming heavy metal, Wan did the exact opposite.
Some of that believability is what’s missing from The Conjuring 2. Don’t misunderstand me – the scares are plentiful and the story is grounded. The execution is where it strays at points.
The Conjuring 2 begins (just as the first one did) with the Warrens investigating another haunting. You know this one. Amityville. Possibly America’s most famous haunted house.
From there, we’re spirited over to Enfield in jolly old England and introduced to a single mother struggling to support her five children. Turns out one of the daughters constructed a makeshift spirit board with a friend and they’ve been talking with the beyond.
If you’ve seen The Exorcist then you can plot this family’s decent into one hellish nightmare after another. But demonic possession has its own rules, so there’s not much Wan and his new team of writers could do.
Unfortunately, they still tried.
And that’s where The Conjuring 2 goes awry. Too much is shown too soon. In the first movie, we’re only teased with quick visuals of the ghost. And those are only a set of white clapping hands that erupt from the shadows.
In the sequel, we more or less see and hear the malicious entity from the start. There isn’t much of a mystery. Of course, it is based on a true story, so Wan had to stick to the events as they originally occurred. Despite that, the possessed daughter speaking in the voice of the ghost is insanely unnerving. It still works. There’s just a little less surprise to it.
Halfway through the second act, the less-is-more approach is all but abandoned. Computer generated special effects haunt the movie, most notably in the form of the Crooked Man, a character in a song the afflicted kids sing.
The scene has the youngest child, Billy, being woken up in the middle of the night by a ringing bell. We’re told earlier that the family they’re staying with trained their dog to paw at bells to let its owners know it has to go potty.
When the dog isn’t at the front door, Billy checks the back door. And there’s the dog. Or what appears to be the dog. A darkness envelopes the canine and its haunches are suddenly long, spindly bent legs. When the legs extend, we see they’re attached to the Crooked Man.
This pulled me out of the movie. I couldn’t really get back in to it afterwards.
The Crooked Man seems out of place here. More suitable for Wan’s Insidious movies. He’s too far-fetched. I can believe in the shaking beds, levitating objects, and bite manifestations, but not a demonic entity bringing a song character to life.
Why can’t I believe it? Because it seems outside the parameters of documented demonic possession. These entities have been known to latch onto objects (like the first movie’s Annabelle doll), but not take the form of a fictitious character.
Unless this actually happened. I haven’t read up on it yet. But if it wasn’t fabricated by Wan and his writers, then I’ll have to reevaluate my opinion. And I really hope it’s made up. That was some scary shit.
Hum-drum special effects litter the back half of the movie. Like a painting coming to life; characters stuck to ceilings; and a stray lightning bolt carving a tree into a giant spear (This is the other thing that seems made-up merely to goose us. I’d like to know if it occurred).
Despite these flaws, The Conjuring 2 is a solid, scary horror movie. What works in it are the same things that worked in the first movie: character, story, and simplicity.
There will probably be another in this series. And I’m more than happy to see it. Hopefully it will show us a little less and let us imagine a little more.
The grade: B+