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THE CONJURING 2 (2016) review

June 9, 2016

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written by: Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes, James Wan & David Leslie Johnson
produced by: Peter Safran and Rob Cowan
directed by: James Wan
rated: R (for terror and horror violence)
runtime: 134 min.
U.S. release date: June 10, 2016

 

Can you call it a film series after just one sequel? With the release of James Wan’s supernatural horror movie, “The Conjuring 2”, they (the press, the media, the internet – what have you) are calling this movie and his atmospheric and legitimately scary “The Conjuring” from 2013, a film series. Maybe they’re counting the Wan-produced “Annabelle”, the spin-off  from 2014 that revolved around the creepy doll from the first movie. Still, it seems presumptuous to call two – maybe three movies – a series. But we’re in a climate where a Hollywood movie has to be packaged and labeled a certain way. Studios (and the internet, apparently) look at what their “product” can potentially be. We can’t just slow down and consider a movie for its own merits anymore, I guess. 

In the case of “The Conjuring 2”, clearly all Warner Bros. Pictures and New Line Cinema are paying attention to is the screams, the laughter and the clapping from test screenings, which was indeed witnessed in the theater I attended. Yes, those TV ads for the film are accurate, people still do that in theaters. This movie will be a hit with fans of the horror genre and specifically James Wan’s previous work. For them, it’s a sure thing. I really liked “The Conjuring” and have been impressed with Wan’s direction (he killed it last year directing “Furious 7“, the blockbuster sequel that’s actually a part of a series) as well as the look and sound of his movies, but this sequel doesn’t totally work for me, but it is better than many American horror films that come out each year.

 

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If you haven’t seen “The Conjuring” and somehow wind up seeing this movie, you won’t be lost.  If you have, just know that Wan and his screenwriters bring back the Warrens, the married couple from the last film, in a movie that’s still seeped in the 70s.  Just like last time, the story here is inspired by the numerous true story accounts of the various cases the paranormal investigating husband/wife team worked on (Wikipedia lists nine investigations, so that gives an idea of the future of this “series”). The had previously helped out the Perron family in 1971 with some problems originating from their cursed Rhode Island farmhouse and now we follow them to England, which finds the devoutly religious couple looking into what would become one of the most publicized and well-documented cases of poltergeist activity ever.

The film opens in 1976 with Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed (Patrick Wilson) Warren sitting in on a séance at the famous Amityville home in New York. We watch as Lorraine’s astral form reenacts the methodical movements the previous owner of the home, Ronald DeFeo, Jr. (resembling James Brolin from “The Amityville Horror”) had taken to murder his family. During this out-of-body experience, Loraine encounters a disturbing demonic figure dressed as a nun and then an even more disturbing scene of her husband dying.

When she comes out of the séance, she swears that’s the closest to hell she ever wants to get. Well, we know better than that considering this is the opening sequence. Buckle in, Lorraine, there’s more hell to come.

Not long after that occurrence, Lorraine makes Ed promise to take a break from taking cases from the church, due to the vision she saw. He agrees and takes up painting ghoulish images in grey tones, one of which is the Demon Nun his wife had encountered at the séance. Not very considerate or sensitive of you, Ed.

 

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A year later, the Warrens are visited by their priest friend, Father Gordon (Steve Coulter), who asked them to come out of their sabbatical to look into a poltergeist situation in London which is making the news. They’re goal is to just observe and report, a cliché mission seen in countless detective and/or spy movies in the past.

Of course, Ed convinces Lorraine to take the case and she reluctantly concedes and soon their flying to London to the tune of “London Calling” by The Clash. Yes, it’s a tune that fits the period with the British punk rock band earning popularity right around that time, but good lord – that is the most overused song in movies featuring characters flying to London (“Die Another Day” immediately comes to mind, “Billy Elliott”, “Get Him to the Greek” and “What A Girl Wants”, just to name a few), so although that’s a nudge-nudge/wink-wink from Wan, it’s still an eye-rolling moment.  Once the couple arrive at the blue-collar London borough of Enfield, we hear a blaring “Bus Stop” by The Hollies from 1966, which is a jarringly odd choice.  Granted, the majority of moviegoers won’t care or notice these musical choices, but if I do, so do others.

They arrive at the home of Peggy Hodgeson (Frances O’ Connor, “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”), an exasperated single mother (is there any other kind?) of four, whose 11-year-old daughter, Janet (Madison Wolfe, last seen in “Trumbo” and “Joy“) has involuntarily become the mouthpiece of a deceased craggy old man  (Bob Adrian) who used to live in their home – actually died in the home (no surprise there) – and just wants everyone to leave. It takes a bit for Peggy to come around to the fact that there’s something wicked brewing in their home, but once Janet’s sibling’s Margaret (Lauren Esposito), Johnny (Patrick McAuley) and Billy (Benjamin Haigh), totally freak-out and she herself witnesses some shaking/moving furniture, an understandable panic and fear set in.

By the time the Warrens arrive Peggy is an absolute mess and although she has support from her neighbors, the Nottinghams (Simon Delaney “Begin Again” and Maria Doyle KennedySing Street“), and police eyewitnesses to the supernatural activity in her home, she is desperate to protect and save her family from this ominous threat. Ed and Lorraine are greeted by a British paranormal investigator Maurice Grosse (Simon McBurney) and a skeptical parapsychologist Anita Gregory (Franka Potente) who fill the American couple in on what they’ve seen and recorded on tape. Things get quite intense as the Warrens communicate with the ghost (or could it be a demon?), which accentuates Lorraine’s existing anxiety due to her seance visions from a year ago. This anxiety is warranted when it is revealed that there is a greater malevolent force behind the haunting of the Hodgeson family.

 

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Wan co-wrote this screenplay with the twin brother duo of Chad and Carey Hayes (co-writers of the last movie), joined by David Leslie Johnson (who penned 2009’s “Orphan”) and all four deliver a story that includes many horror movie conventions we’ve come to expect. At times, the movie’s obviousness is somewhat annoying, even distracting, yet it never really took me away from an appreciation of the movie. Many of the familiar beats – creaky doors, dripping faucets, moving furniture, a ouija board, hiding under the covers with a flashlight – really work, but if you prefer more of a ‘less is more’ approach, you may be throwing your hands up in the air like I did more than once while watching.

While the majority of the cast in “The Conjuring 2” are very convincing and committed (especially the entire Hodgeson family) what they wind up saying is often quite hokey and ridiculous, especially as the paranormal activity kicks into high gear. Farmiga and Wilson once again display great chemistry, but some of their lines with each other are so schmaltzy they earn laughs during heartfelt or sincere moments. There are also supporting characters that come in and out of the story’s overlong second half without any explanation for their behavior or reason for even being in the scene. I couldn’t help but wonder who that bearded guy was with the electromagnetic sound wand, or why McBurney continuously has a Cheshire grin in almost every scene as Maurice Grosse or why it is that Potente is wasted in a one-dimensional role. These are supporting characters – I get it, but they’re also given to good character actors who don’t have much to do. Maybe that’s asking too much of a horror movie since the focus is primarily on mood and tone, but that doesn’t mean their lack of characterization doesn’t stick out.

 

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Whatever issues I have with dialogue, character behavior or the overuse of tropes in “The Conjuring 2”, there is no denying that Wan is skilled at making these movies, having started out in movies like “Saw” and “Insidious”. He understands how to build tension in a scene and does so patiently, often with the use of effective long takes. Viewers watch and scour the frame with their eyes, awaiting…something, anything. He and cinematographer Don Burgess (“What Lies Beneath” and “The Book of Eli“) craft great sequences using swirling camerawork that follows the characters from above, behind or below – even through floors – to place viewers in the moment, instead of relying on cheap shocks. Although when there are shocks, they genuinely work.

The 70s look of the movie is also such an integral part of what makes the sequel (and the last movie) work.  From the hideous wall paper adorning the walls to the god-awful carpeting, the interiors feel like a case study in what went wrong in interior design in that decade. Then there’s the distinctively dated hairstyles the men adorn, from wily mustaches to sharp sideburns, as well as the billowy blouses and huge lapels the women proudly wear. It’s like flipping through an old family photo album and cringing. But it’s nevertheless evident how the set design and the wardrobe/hair add authenticity to the commitment level of the movie.

A horror movie thrives or dies on its threats and that’s definitely one area where “The Conjuring 2” succeeds.  All three potential threats – the Marilyn Manson-looking Demon Nun (Bonnie Aarons), the old man (Bob Adrian) and an animated entity called Crooked Man (Javier Botet, who also played a creepy character in “Mama“), who comes to life from a beloved toy – are flat-out scary. Sure, a few times they provide some unintentional laughs or eye-rolls, but they are most memorable when Wan has hem deliver some definite scares.

I was on the fence with it immediately after seeing it and even struggled with it and turned the tide on it as I wrote this review. But, it comes down to what is most memorable to me and what sticks with me the most are all the elements that work – not Patrick Wilson singing/playing Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” – but that feeling of scouring the screen to find out what’s going to happen next. That is indeed present here.  It’s the legitimate scares, convincing atmosphere and committed performances that make “The Conjuring 2” memorable and well worth seeing in theaters.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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