Director James Wan, who is slowly becoming a household name, ups the ante with another haunted house fright fest in The Conjuring 2, following the sleeper hit that started it all three years ago. Stylish and experimental, the sequel keeps afresh the franchise-in-the-making, despite being subdued.
We catch up on Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), real-life paranormal investigators set to close the Harrisville case that inspired The Amityville Horror. The case leaves Lorraine traumatized, and haunted by a premonition she cannot seem to shake off. Meanwhile, the Warrens are offered another case located north of London, as dark forces begin to terrorize the Hodgson’s family (loosely based on the actual Enfield poltergeist case). It is only a matter of time before entropy ensues, leaving both the haunted and the haunting at questionable faults.
I think it is high time that James Wan is recognized for the renewed vitality that he has injected into the horror genre. Starting with the Saw series, the young director has found confident footing with the macabre. He then refined his skills by dabbling with paranormal with the Insidious trilogy. It is in The Conjuring, and more so in this sequel, that the prolific director has given birth to his pièce de résistance, an evolving oeuvre that shows a distinct and accessible trademark — a winning combination that makes him one of the most bankable directors to date.
In The Conjuring 2, there are a lot of jump scares – some were predictable, but none felt cheap. James Wan succeeds by becoming the master pacemaker of the entire audience’s heart rate and breathing if there was any more room to breathe. With the help of editor Kirk M. Morri, Wan has mastered the rhythm of surprising his audience – by realizing there has to be no rhythm at all. And then there’s a likely trademark shot involving a face or two. He already did this once in Insidious, and he did it again in this movie to tremendous effect. As for the real creeps, there is a lingering sense of dread built by the atmospheric production, and the attention to detail is striking. The people behind the production made sure the audience believes that the film is mostly set in the cold, council houses of London, and how its chilly air penetrates the theater once the camera smoothly zooms its way inside the haunted house. The various knickknacks make the atmosphere a little bit more askew, such as an armchair, the telly playing ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’, a firetruck, a zoetrope featuring one Mr. Crooked Man (whose arc I found unnecessary, if not an attempt to create another fantastical iteration of The Babadook), and a deliciously diabolical painting of a nun.
As much as the film is focused on giving fright in Christmas time, its soul is only half as frigid. Humor is peppered here and there, and it is in these light moments that the people are allowed to breathe, or even open their squinted eyes.
There is a noticeable change in tone from the first movie, focusing more on the psyche of each character, especially between the Warrens, and the possessed. It allows the audience to empathize more, and I think this is the greatest success of the film, despite (and because of) its objective to terrify. To better understand each character is to make the audience more vulnerable, and in the end more terrified of each character’s fear, as much is at stake. There is a special Elvis number that serves as a grace note to illustrate this vulnerability – a reassurance in the face of isolation, loneliness, and the demonic face of defeat. It is in this manner that the overlying talk of faith in the movie is more welcome than pandering. The shrouded context of faith being markedly questioned, and destroyed, effectively and paradoxically strengthens the faith of the audience to choose to believe either way.
This unabashed moral standpoint that threads the story sets Wan apart from the others, and while imperfect and less enthusiastic than its predecessor, sets The Conjuring 2 on another level. It may get a bit cheesy and overwrought at some point, but apparently things are terrifying if watched with hearts thumping for hope.
That is horror for you.