film horror

THE CONJURING 2 Review: The Family That Scares Together...

Monday, June 13, 2016 Rob Samuelson

The Conjuring 2

Director: James Wan
Writers: Carey Hayes, Chad Hayes, James Wan, David Leslie Johnson
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Madison Wolfe, Frances O’Connor
Rating: Four stars out of five
Available in theaters now

The Conjuring 2 is a film about the best parts of Catholicism. It is about the love for one’s family the religion espouses, as well as selfless service in the face of danger, helping the downtrodden, and absolute belief in things its characters cannot logically understand -- and the fear that accompanies that lack of understanding. The second film in a series about the real-life paranormal investigations of Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson) dives into the deepest fears of all Christians, practicing or lapsed.

But, like its predecessor, The Conjuring 2 is also a mission statement about the most effective form of filmmaking. Director James Wan (Furious 7, Saw) crafts his films like a man untethered to modernity. He takes his time. His camera is more interested in revealing information rather than smashing it into an audience’s faces as a cheap jolt. Every shot conveys something important to a scene or a character or a relationship. His approach to scares is wholly different from many of the filmmakers who reigned during the height of the slasher era. Instead of continually stabbing the audience, Wan knows the knife has already done its damage -- they bought a ticket and they are sitting in the theater. So he leaves the knife in, twisting it and making a viewer squirm until they can’t take it any longer. And so it is as he toys with his audiences, pushing his camera in at an agonizingly slow pace to focus on empty chairs or the faces of his characters as they contort in terror.

While Wan reveals information slowly, The Conjuring 2 is not an interminable, static experience. He and cinematographer Don Burgess keep the camera constantly on the move. This technique works wonders as 11-year-old Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe) begins experiencing paranormal activity in the sleepy English home she shares with her mother, Peggy (Frances O’Connor), and three siblings in 1977. Wan and Burgess glide the camera through the house’s narrow upstairs hallway, which is cluttered with disturbing toys and an ominous tent made out of bed sheets. It moves up and down staircases bordered by peeling and yellowed wallpaper and framed family photographs that one gets the sense are not looked at much anymore. It circles around the children’s bedrooms, which are adorned with posters of pop stars of the age. This orients the audience to the set, allowing them to know where everything is and what props hold the greatest significance as the story unfolds. As a consequence, when things start to go bump in the night, viewers know, almost to the inch, how close a ghost or demon is to the imperiled family at the film’s center.

Another significant benefit to this approach is the quality time spent with the family -- there’s that Catholicism again. They are reeling from the breakup of Peggy’s marriage and the financial hole an absentee father puts the family in. Peggy makes a kind but physically difficult sacrifice for her youngest son by quitting smoking so she can afford to get him his favorite snack. Stress and frustration prevent Peggy from listening to Janet try to explain herself after she get in trouble at school for something she did not do. These become real people and their relationships form the background of the audience’s identification. Brothers Carey and Chad Hayes and their screenwriting partners, Wan and David Leslie Johnson, earn audience empathy by writing the script this way rather than assuming the audience will care for these characters simply because they occupy the screen. This is crucial to maximizing the heightened emotions that follow later.

But The Conjuring 2 is not only about the Hodgson family. Unlike other haunted house pictures, the paranormal investigators do not enter mid-film as kooky or spooky ingredients meant to spice up the movie. Lorraine and Ed are full-fledged lead characters in the film, and as it opens they are dealing with their own troubles. They appear on talk shows to defend themselves against charges that their investigation of the Amityville, New York case -- the subject of the 1979 horror film The Amityville Horror and also summarized at the beginning of this movie -- may have been faked. But public perception is the least of their worries, because Lorraine’s astral projection experience in Amityville opened the metaphysical door for one of the most powerful and cruel entities she has ever encountered, a demon who wears a nun’s habit to mock her Catholic faith.

But their problems are external. Together, they are strong, a couple that builds each other up and trusts one another. They are more comfortable in their own skin than they were in the first film, which took place six years earlier. This is a couple that knows who they are and what they want. They are functional in a way many film couples are not. Their central conflict is not about whether they will ruin their relationship or whether they can continue to love each other, but rather a fear that something evil will tear them away from each other. Lorraine wants to quit, or at least take a long break from their investigations, because their work has literally followed them home.

While they are as frayed as can be, when the Catholic Church comes calling about a family in England being terrorized by a ghost who is convinced he still lives in their house, Lorraine and Ed give up their self-imposed sabbatical. They may need their rest, but this family also needs help. Or do they? That’s what the Church wants to find out, and they sell the Warrens on the plan by saying their only duty in the case is to “observe and report” to determine whether something demonic is actually occurring. That shred of doubt hangs around the edges of the film, but the faith of everyone at its center is powerful -- they know what they are experiencing is real even if they can’t explain it by secular means.

The Hodgsons are in bad shape when the Warrens arrive. Things have escalated beyond furniture being thrown across rooms. Janet teleports, levitates, and begins speaking in a growl, delivering messages about how the house is not for them, but for a man named Bill, who died in the house. There is something more sinister beneath the already terrifying idea of a grumpy old ghost trying to assert his dominance over a house he used to inhabit, something that cannot be solved with corporeal tools. It’s petrifying even for old pros Lorraine and Ed, something Wan never lets the audience forget, with his push-ins to Farmiga and Wilson’s paralyzed reactions to the things they encounter. That combination of faith and fear is potent, because sometimes even the faithful cannot be protected by whichever higher power they believe in.

But to these people, there is power in family. Lorraine and Ed become the Hodgson family’s surrogate aunt and uncle, and their service points to how they can heal the supernatural strife in their own lives. Wilson shines as he does a full-on hokey dad routine as Ed, leading a singalong to Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” in one of the silliest, most earnest scenes ever put on film -- doubly so for a horror picture. Farmiga’s Lorraine reaffirms her love for her husband by remembering aloud how meaningful it was to have someone who believed in her supernatural abilities, which empowers her to protect him at all costs. They do something that is larger than themselves. They do good even if it comes at great personal cost.

All those things help The Conjuring 2 overcome its clunkier moments, like the number of times it over-explains itself in its dialogue. It already makes clear the meanings of most of its messages via visual storytelling, and its exposition can feel like it does not believe in its audience to pay attention. The way the threats to the Warrens and Hodgsons dovetail is perhaps too convenient, or maybe it’s a genius example of a streamlined narrative. But these complaints are few. It is moving to see a film so gung ho about faith and family, and the fact that it is so effectively constructed is a miracle.

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