'The Conjuring 2'
Back in the ancient and innocent days of 2013, ‘The Conjuring’ brought home buckets full of cash by reminding people about good old-fashioned cinematic scare grammar. The movie was far from original and director James Wan was pretty cheap in staging his roving camera jolts, but it worked. Now it’s three years later and Wan is back with a sequel that’s bigger, more expensive and certainly longer, but not better.
After years of torture gore, music video slasher remakes, and found-footage haunts, mainstream audiences got hooked on the classic horror craft of ‘The Conjuring’ because the old tricks hadn’t been used in so long that they felt fresh again. For the sequel, Wan clearly brought some of the directorial excess he picked up from helming ‘Furious 7’ into this project, and that’s sadly not a good thing.
That said, ‘The Conjuring 2’ actually start off fairly well. After a downright bizarre opening that shows the ghost-hunting Warrens (Vera Fermiga and Patrick Wilson) in the ‘Amityville Horror’ house (presumably to make the rip-off/homage of 1970s supernatural horror in the last movie overt rather than implied… one hopes), Wan settles into a nice rhythm of setting up two haunted tales in parallel. Over in America, the Warrens fight off idiot intellectuals on TV to convince the world of the existence of ghosts (insert laugh track), decide to stop their practice for safety’s sake, and have visions of an undeniably creepy nun demon. Over in England, a struggling Cockney single mother (Frances O’Connor) and her children suffer attacks from a creepy old man ghost that possesses her youngest daughter (Madison Wolfe).
Working with quite a high budget by horror standards, Wan takes his time setting up both hauntings with meticulously constructed suspense set-pieces produced on an impressive scale. Show-offy long-take camerawork establishes the creepy locations and gradually ratchets up tension and jump scares to work the audience into a fever pitch. When Wan is at his best, the guy’s style overcomes his limited storytelling abilities. Like old Italian exploitation fare, his films get by on artful atmosphere that makes cornball dialogue and dead-eyed acting feel like deliberate choices in building a surreal cinematic nightmare. (In particular, the logic-free ‘Insidious: Chapter 2’ offers a magical mix of sublime style and incompetent storytelling that’s good stupid fun.) The dueling build-up sequences in ‘The Conjuring 2’ have that special Wan quality, just blown up to blockbuster scale that makes for an amusing summertime horror ride filled with jolts and snickers.
Unfortunately, that’s just the setup to the movie and it takes a full hour to play out with all of the long, suspenseful pauses. At the point the movie should segue into the climax, somehow Wan has only just introduced his heroes to their haunted destination.
Had the movie maintained the same queasy and carefully crafted atmosphere after that point, it might well have been an enjoyable sequel. Sadly, that’s when the whole thing comes apart. All the atmospherics disappear in favor of spending more time with cardboard characters who are impossible to care about. There’s a long and embarrassing sequence where Wilson sings Elvis to terrified children that’s just cringe-worthy. The British accents are embarrassingly overplayed. Attempts to raise questions about the validity of the haunting drag the movie to a halt. They seem completely pointless given that this is a sequel to a movie which already established that ghosts and demons are real. It’s tough stuff, and even though this material theoretically gives the actors a chance to build their characters in the calm of a scare storm, they’re all stuck with such underwritten roles that it’s little more than a distraction. All the visual energy and atmosphere that Wan built in the first hour disappears during these flatly shot dialogue scenes and the movie drags on at least 30 minutes too long right when audience attention starts to wane.
Once all the talky-talky middle section is finally over, Wan finally gets back into set-piece territory, but by then the filmmaker has lost so many viewers that it’s difficult to get wrapped up in his old tricks again. After all, between the ‘Insidious’ movies and ‘The Conjuring’, this marks the fourth time the director has mounted this exact brand of haunted house scares, and he doesn’t have any tricks left that we haven’t already seen. The only difference is that those old scares are more expensive this time, but that doesn’t make them any better, especially when CGI rears its ugly head repeatedly. By the time the big finale rolls around, things get downright laughably repetitive. In fact, the way in which the Warrens are able to defeat the final evil spirit is so preposterous and lazy that it feels like a twist from a ‘Scary Movie’ parody rather than a real horror flick.
It’s sad to watch ‘The Conjuring 2′ fall apart after starting out as a decent horror sequel, and even sadder when you consider that so few horror movies are ever mounted with this many studio resources. Throw in the fact that the sequel is at least 40 minutes longer than any entertainment-driven horror flick should be and you’ve got yourself a big ol’ mess of a missed opportunity.
It’s a shame, but at least ‘The Conjuring 2’ has enough going for it to avoid being a total disaster. The first hour is quite well crafted and Madison Wolfe is rather good doing her possessed child routine. Even the wonky back half of the film has a few decent jump scares hidden beneath the stink. Given that ‘The Conjuring’ was overrated in the first place, there’s a chance that some folks will get a kick out of the follow-up (although no one will be forgiving enough to consider it an equal). However, for most horror fans and even casual viewers, ‘The Conjuring 2’ will be a disappointment. The degree of failure is debatable, but the fact of failure is not.
On the bright side, at least the death of the ‘Conjuring’ franchise will leave a space open in pulp culture for the next big horror series to emerge. Hopefully it won’t take long.