An approach with subtext can be refreshing in a climate saturated by geek shows. Human slaughter and all the conventional “gotcha” gimmicks have frequently coarsened the horror genre into nonsense, often at the expense of the credibility of talented actors and filmmakers. What gives “The Conjuring” franchise such discernable triumph, I suspect, is that the films fall blissfully in the tradition of classic supernatural thrillers, where an idea drives the momentum of the terror instead of turning the terror itself into a tool of piercing desensitization. Consider that state of thought as you work your way through this rather ambitious follow-up and ask yourself this: when was the last time you cared so much about the outcome of a specific story arc, or at least placed stock in one that contained characters you felt compelled to empathize with?
Working from the same engine of solidarity that made the predecessor such an effective outing, Wan has sideswiped the unspoken nature of sequels and made a film that is equally as good as the original: a tightly-wound, precise and frightening excursion into the shadowy odyssey of paranormal dangers that never ceases to keep our attention or place us in the scope of its ambiguous crosshairs. And if earlier feelings bear repeating, then it’s worth observing that this is a director who has finally found a premise he was born to work with – a proclamation that will be welcome news for those who still haven’t forgiven him for “Saw.”
The story deals, once again, with the case files of a pair of paranormal gurus who specialize in taming the beasts of the supernatural, usually as they make their presence known in the corners of old houses, under floorboards or beneath the beds of innocent children. After their excursion into the guilty memories of the Amityville house – in which Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), a seer, announces that “this is the closest I ever want to get to hell” – the conflicted couple drifts off into sabbatical from their dangerous routine. That has just as much to do with foreboding visions as it does to a need of rest; Ed (Patrick Wilson) is having dreams about a nun-like figure with a monstrous face hidden underneath a habit, and Lorraine’s concern of that dream is exacerbated by her own premonitions, which seem to prophesize his own death at the evil nun’s diabolical hands. This plot device, a carryover from the more recent “Insidious” series, becomes an underlying driving influence that sticks with the characters as they are brought out of isolation to investigate a strange case in London, where a family is undergoing ominous hauntings from an old man with yellow eyes.
The family at the center of this particular situation is an invert of what we saw in the previous film, which contained victims that at least had a sense of confidence and optimism before they were subjected to the torment of lost souls. The household in this case contains insecure and poverty-stricken sorts: a mother (Frances O’Connor) who is broke and divorced and not getting child support payments from a deadbeat father; a young daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe) who has no friends and is caught in an early scene holding a friend’s cigarette at school; a young son Billy (Benjamin Haigh) who is isolated by how own stuttering problem; and two other siblings named Margaret and Johnny (Lauren Esposito and Patrick McCauley), who are destined to be the primary eyewitnesses of inevitable chaos. The scenarios begin innocuously enough: noises in the dark, strange voices, Janet sleepwalking and having conversations with someone not in the room, and even a toy fire truck that has a mind of its own. But the events graduate from possible misunderstandings to downright blatant attacks on this unit of unlucky people, and the press is called in to document the details. The added benefit is that news eventually must reach the Warrens of this discovery, and the church – hopeful to assist in an exorcism – hire them to investigate the media circus, just to be sure that what is going on behind cameras isn’t just some elaborate hoax.
The movie borrows a good deal of its devices from a plethora of established horror films (most notably, “Poltergeist” and “The Exorcist”) but doesn’t use them in a cheap or bland manner; it marries them to a story arc that is built with convincing modulation, and characters that match the depth of the scares with their own personal traumas. That Wan insists on casting such personas with relatively credible actors helps in that distinction; they don’t overburden the momentum with ham-handed deliveries, and the child actors play through the scenes as if they’ve absorbed the fantasy as a facet of truth. Young Madison Wolfe is especially captivating as the conflicted Janet, a girl who becomes the pained target of supernatural taunting, danger and then outright possession. In the later scenes, when circumstances eventually lead her to violence, her conviction has an intensity that is reminiscent of a young Linda Blair – firm without being a whirl of overzealous physicality or scene-chewing. Those qualities become dependable defenses to a series of gimmicks that most will find extremely familiar, including furniture being thrown around by unseen hands, the creep chair at the corner of the living room, the obligatory flooded basement and the crumbling house in the finale, where the characters must make quick decisions in order to best their loud nemesis.
Among the most vulgar of its devices, however, the movie is especially fluent in the Rule of the Red Pajamas – a staple of ghost-oriented horror films where children are frequently seen wearing crimson garments during the dead of night. The rulebook suggests the use of the color as a way of drawing the audience’s eye directly to a target: those dressed in them are destined to be objects of torment for vengeful spirits (the famous examples, “The Shining” and “Poltergeist III,” were also the most consistent with this idea). In sync with that practice, Janet is seen in two different intervals under this guideline, which now inspires broader suggestions: is it coincidental that those who wear red are picked on by evil spirits, or is there something about the color that turns them ravenous? Are the villains reacting in the same way that a bull would towards a goading matador? Some will accuse me of reading far too much into a suggestion than what is really there, but so what? If a movie is good enough to open the floor for even minor observations, isn’t that indicative of something engrossing at work within the frames?
No one goes to these movies anymore for originality. This is a genre has over time seen countless side roads and indulged thousands of eager voices with movie cameras in the creation of something menacing – for horror, for social commentary, for discomfort and even for some level of satire. What directors and writers must inevitably ask themselves, especially now, is what do those ideas mean to them and how do they spin them into gold again? For Wan, the answer is obvious: use what you believe in and modulate them in a mix of high energy, patience and likable characters. It also helps to have a very perceptive premise in your hands, too. Thus far that sentiment has kept his perspective congruent with underlying audience desires, and “The Conjuring 2” is yet another enjoyable example of how one’s endeavors can still yield shrewd entertainment if there is a filmmaker that still believes in their resources standing at the helm.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Mystery/Horror (US); 2016; Rated R; Running Time: 134 Minutes
Patrick Wilson: Ed Warren
Vera Farmiga: Lorraine Warren
Madison Wolfe: Janet Hodgson
Frances O’Connor: Peggy Hodgson
Lauren Esposito: Margaret Hodgson
Benjamin Haigh: Billy Hodgson
Patrick McCauley: Johnny Hodgson
Simon McBurney: Maurice Grosse
Maria Doyle Kennedy: Peggy Nottingham
Produced by Richard Brener, Rob Cowan, Walter Hamada, Jenny Hinkey, Dave Neustadter, Peter Safran and James Wan; Directed by James Wan; Written by Carey Hayes, Chad Hayes, James Wan and David Johnson
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