Silver Screen: The Conjuring II **
James Wan’s The Conjuring was a surprise hit in 2013— surprising both with its robust box office and Wan’s ability to generate tremendous scares from especially low-concept horror tropes: demonic possession, haunted family, creepy doll, and “based on a true story.”
Nothing about The Conjuring was particular ingenious— save perhaps for the brilliant suspense mechanism of the children’s clapping game— but through sheer aesthetics and technique, Wan created an atmosphere of intense menace. He hit the sweet spot of a carnival spookhouse, frightening enough to get the adrenaline pumping but not so upsetting as to wipe the smile off your face.
The Conjuring II not only fails to live up to the original, it retroactively highlights its flaws. Doubling down on the disingenuous piety and tacky conservatism is like throwing on the lights in that carnival ride. Suddenly you’re too aware of the dingy, mechanized surroundings designed to manipulate you toward simulated glee.
The Conjuring lends itself to a sequel, or even a TV spinoff. Several times in the original its holy heroes, paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), visit a room in their home office filled with knickknacks and idols involved in hauntings. It’s a great storytelling device— pick an object, win a story!— but one the sequel slightly eschews in favor of returning to these “real-life” ghost hunters’ famous case.
The Warrens were involved in the Amityville haunting, made famous in the 1979 film and infamous by journalists who rather easily debunked the whole silly mess. But, as Lorraine will later learn in the film while battling a demon sprit, there’s power in a name, and Amityville is still a strong brand for true believers.
In the prologue, Lorraine, a vague kind of quasi-medium/Christian spiritualist, descends into the basement at the Amityville house and encounters a spirit whose evil is unrivaled in her experience. The demon has taken the form of a ghostly nun because, well, you know, it’s scary.
Meanwhile, in the English suburb of Enfield, single mum Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) finds her house under attack from an unseen force. It slings chairs and tables like a practiced poltergeist, but especially focuses its attention on her youngest daughter, Janet (Madison Wolfe).
The Warrens are summoned, despite Lorraine’s worry that she and Ed are spending too much time adjacent to Hell. They agree to help the family despite lingering uncertainties over the validity of the case— and also Lorraine’s suspicion the supernatural force at work is a being she’s met before.
In the original Conjuring, director Wan wowed with his ability to instill menace into even the most familiar horror conventions. Here he still evinces a facility for jump scares and memorable nightmare images, but the spirit is gone. Toy trucks drive around on their own accord, empty rocking chairs rhythmically sway, and a dilapidated old swing creaks in the evening mist. It feels far more like checking off boxes of obligatory genre trappings than anything like reinvention. What would be fun begins to wear thin during the course of a bloated 135-minute running time.
Far worse, though, is the careless doubling down on the Warrens as defenders of the faith. They’ve been proven several times over to be frauds— a ghostwriter they worked with has gone on record to say he was told to fabricate whatever details he needed so long as they were scary— but in The Conjuring II they’re misunderstood saints in a pop hagiography.
The latent conservatism of the series curdles into something foul and condescending. O’Conner’s single mum is presented as loving but brittle, a lady trying hard but failing to properly raise her children— that is, of course, until daddy figure Ed Warren comes in to croon Elvis songs on a guitar and set the family straight. The paternalism may be the creepiest element at play here. All they needed was Jesus and a nuclear family as strong as the Warrens’, where married white people slow dance around Christmas trees to fight evil. There’s far more conning than conjuring here.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.