Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The Conjuring 2


The Conjuring 2 makes me very happy. Not just because it's a pretty great film, but because it proves something that I believe true, and I've been waiting a long time to find a film to use as a case point for this belief: conventional does not mean bad. I mean obviously there are boundaries and limitations - it's difficult to enjoy a predictable film ridden with cliches that doesn't even try to put a fresh spin on them - but plain and conventional films are frequently tossed aside as unoriginal and given no further thought. The Conjuring 2 offers slammed doors, moving chairs, tonnes of religious iconography, and a jam packed finale that brings the demon into the foreground. It's about as conventional as horror comes. With James Wan sitting in the director's chair, however, this does not matter one bit. The film may be by the books, but it's fast, it's focused, and it has more than enough capability to have you checking every shadow in your room twice when trying to sleep that night.

Whilst the ending of The Conjuring - an extremely well crafted film that just lacked a bit of well needed horror - led us to believe that this sequel would take us straight to Amityville, this film wisely skips over this thread. We open with Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) at the end of the Amityville case, and the surprisingly effective opening sequence perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the film. We soon cut to England, 1977, and meet the Hodgson family. The film nicely introduces us to them, sets them up as a loving and caring family, then wastes no time in kicking off the paranormal. Daughter Janet begins sleepwalking and talking to invisible figures in the night, doors start slamming and toys move by themselves. The film's script, co-penned by Wan with a few others, wisely skips over any argumentative traits within the family. We need to like this family for the horror to work, and Wan is the rare horror director who understands this. We see the family laugh together, do favours for each other, stick up for one and other. When the haunting begins, the mother of the family (Frances O'Conner) is naturally sceptical, but within minutes she firmly believes her children. It's a refreshing change from having an argumentative family who quiz and question each other all the time. It makes the horror that bit more effective because the emotional stakes are higher.

The same can be said for Ed and Lorraine. The first film did a solid job of displaying them as a happy and devoted couple, and the sequel here continues this trend but to a more mixed result. Small moments like Ed questioning the sleeping arrangements work well to remind us that they're a genuine couple, but their separate retelling of the same story about marrying the one who believes you comes across more soppy that sweet, and the film's musical score (which is great in the horror sequences) is too on the nose with the piano melodies whenever the pair declare their love for each other. The film doesn't need to be so forthcoming since it's so effective in the smaller moments; one shot of Lorraine's face when Ed sings a gentle song to the children in a genuinely touching scene is all we need to understand how deeply she cares for him. Farmiga gives a superlative performance here, as does Wilson, and this strong acting keeps the script feeling fresh even when a few too many cliches are bouncing out of the box. The acting is pretty great all round, really, with O'Conner seamlessly balancing the mother's fear of the spirit and love for her daughter, and even the younger cast admirably hold their own against the great adult performances.

Much like the first film, though, the film's greatest accomplishments come through its technicalities and attention to detail. Wan's camera soars around the house, gliding smoothly round corners at the perfect pace: fast enough that it feels unnerving, but slow enough for us to still spot every possible nook and cranny where evil could be lurking. The soundtrack jumps to life whenever it needs to, forcing even the most basic horror tropes to feel like so much more. A particularly eerie sequence puts Ed in a one on one conversation with the spirit, but the camera remains fixed in one position and refuses to cut until the dialogue ends, and the frame's entire background is left completely out of focus. It's seriously effective. Wan also refrains from over using jump scares, but the ones that he does use are effective. A perfectly timed jump following a sequence focused on a zoetrope is impactful enough to cause a heart attack, and the sequence keeps raising its game from there. Wan doesn't just use jump scares as a cheap thrill, he uses them to kickstart sequences of extreme intensity: we jump, but we can't just laugh it off afterwards. The combination of makeup and CGI used to create the Nun is brilliantly horrifying, and the design of the Crooked Man is effective even if the CGI budget can't quite stretch far enough to render him equally frightening.

I'd go as far as saying that The Conjuring 2 is a scarier film that its predecessor, even if it can't quite match the original in inventiveness and well rounded character work. The uneven nature of Ed and Lorraine's relationship is arguably the film's biggest misstep, but even then it's far from poor. The Conjuring 2 may be lighter on story (and its 2+ hour runtime feels a tad bloated), but it makes up for this with with pure horror. Real fear comes from within and the film has a likeable family to create this, only boosted more so by how talented Wan is at crafting a legitimately scary piece of film making. That the film also finds time for a brief musical interlude, and ends on a somewhat sweet note, is proof that horror doesn't always have to be doom and gloom. The stakes are high and people are traumatised but The Conjuring 2 is a horror film with a heart, and it never loses sight of its humanity; as uneven as this representation is, at least it exists. The film may not be groundbreaking, and it doesn't do quite enough to earn a place in the modern genre's top tier with the likes of The Babadook, It Follows, and The Witch, but it remains a fun, enjoyable and suitably scary outing that proves that even the most conventional stories can be a blast as long as there's some meat on its bones and razor sharp teeth in its bite.

To Summarise: It may not be as well rounded as its predecessor, but The Conjuring 2 is a well performed and effectively frightening horror sequel that further solidifies James Wan's current status as horror's most skilled director.

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