not in our stars, but in ourselves
I am no horror aficionado. I do not get a thrill from being scared; I do not enjoy seeking out new ways for my unconscious to terrify me in my dreams; I do not look at the real world, which is scary enough, and then elect to immerse myself in imaginary scares for a couple of hours at a time. At least, not usually. And so, it is with an amateur’s clumsiness that I observe: deviltry and occultism seems to be making a big comeback in the horror genre. Maybe it’s been there all along, but it appears to me that there’s been more of it in recent years. Movies often reflect/refract national psyches and neuroses; one can well imagine what it says about us when we’ve got a spate of horror films in which the devil and his power are very, very real – and God seems to be completely absent. In The Conjuring and now The Conjuring 2, we have a devout demonologist couple who are capable of exorcising demons from hapless humans. They both believe that their power comes from God – but there’s not all that much proof to support their belief. Perhaps I’m just a cynic. Anyway.
A few years after Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) successfully rid the Perron family’s home of the demon Bathsheba, they’re on another case: the infamous house in Amityville, where a lone gunman shot and killed his entire family, claiming to have been possessed while he did it. The Warrens are in the house to see if some sort of evil spirit really is there, as the new inhabitants claim. During the séance, Lorraine sees a horrible looking creature dressed as a nun, and a man impaled on a spike. After her vision, she insists to Ed that they have to stop their work: she fears it’s going to kill one or both of them if they continue to leave themselves so vulnerable to such evil forces. As luck would have it, however, the Church wants them to go to London to investigate one more apparent case of possession. The Hodgson family – mother Peggy (Frances O’Connor), daughters Janet (Madison Wolfe) and Margaret (Lauren Esposito), and sons Johnny (Patrick McAuley) and Billy (Benjamin Haigh) – has been haunted and attacked by some sort of entity that appears as an elderly man. Janet is particularly victimized, speaking in the man’s voice and levitating. Reluctantly, the Warrens head to London to check things out. They’re skeptical at first, but then they realize that the “haunting” isn’t merely a case of a vengeful ghost: it’s something demonic, yet again, and it wants Ed and Lorraine.
The Conjuring 2 isn’t perfect, but it suffers most of all due to something that really can’t be helped: it’s a sequel to The Conjuring. The freshness of the first film isn’t possible to recreate, and we have a very similar story here: a nice, down-on-their-luck, predominantly female family finds itself besieged by evil forces – forces that only the Warrens (or, uh, “God”) have the power to dispel. This, supposedly, is what the Warrens did; it’s not really anyone’s fault that it felt more novel the first time around. In this era of cinematic universes, rather than sequels, there is something refreshingly old-fashioned about a second chapter that repeats the structure of the first, with a few altered details. That, in my opinion, is entirely forgivable. I’ll take it over Marvel any day of the week.
Beyond that, I do have a few minor quibbles. One of the things that makes The Conjuring so effectively scary is how little it shows us of the demon. There are glimpses, shadows, nanosecond-long appearances – but it’s never quite long enough for us to see the seams in the film’s production. The Exorcist, too, is most frightening in its use of flashes of Pazuzu: those repeated blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shots of a horrible, demonic face. Most of the time, The Conjuring 2 sticks to its predecessor’s method of inducing scares. Most of the time, when we do get extended face time (so to speak) with the demon, it’s genuinely awful to look at. (Apologies to the poor actress playing the nun-demon, but, well, you give me the heebie-jeebies.) In other, less humanoid forms, however, The Conjuring 2 lets us look too long. I’ll regret saying this, probably, but CGI is just never that scary in any more than the tiniest doses. It is the modern-day equivalent of the obviously fake puppets in slasher films of yore. Fortunately, The Conjuring 2 doesn’t fall into the CGI monster trap too often – and shortly after it flirts with such cheesiness, it generally ratchets things up to eleven and delivers some genuine scares – but it is a weakness not present in the first film.
The following isn’t a weakness, per se, or even a criticism; just a thought. At its best, The Conjuring 2 is like a mashup of The Exorcist, The Babadook, and the original Conjuring. There’s even a small nod (that’s how I took it, at least) to the dearly departed Hannibal: Lorraine Warren, during the séance in Amityville, sees herself walking from room to room, slaying the DeFeo family, very much like Will Graham. I don’t quite think that The Conjuring 2 manages to plumb the depths of any of these antecedents, however. Of course, it doesn’t have to. It’s a scary movie. It’s beautifully (and creepily) shot. It’s full of great performances. It often had me, the great wimp that I am, watching from behind my fingers. There’s no real need for a horror movie – for any movie – to do anything beyond entertain/thrill/etc. And yet…. Because it’s calling on so many other sources, and because those sources are so very intelligent and fascinating and rooted in causes beyond mere chills, it can’t help stumbling a bit by comparison. The Exorcist is about the world’s horror with pubescent girls, about guilt, about crises of faith. The Babadook is about grief-psychosis, about the isolation and resentment of raising a “problem” child. The Conjuring is about secret histories that make themselves known, in the most brutal ways, to people who are (more or less) innocent. And The Conjuring 2 is about…a demon that has it in for some demon-hunters. I don’t wish to convey that I didn’t enjoy the film, or that I thought it was badly done, but I did hope for a little more. Be careful what you wish for, I suppose; who knows how they’ll up the ante next time.