Can’t help falling in love
Mainstream horror’s bad reputation is mostly deserved. There have been bright spots in recent mass-appeal scary movies, but as indie horror gets better and more inventive the studio stuff aimed at a Friday night teenage megaplex audience looks worse by comparison. James Wan is an exception to this rule. After accidentally starting the megahit Saw franchise in the early 2000s, he got a second dose of wide-release success with 2013’s The Conjuring.
Wan’s mainstream appeal might roll more eyes if not for the fact that he’s a top-tier director. Sure, his movies have spawned sequels and spin offs, but lesser follow-up films are a proud horror tradition. As someone who was rattled by The Conjuring, I approached 2016’s The Conjuring 2 with a mix of excitement and trepidation. I trust Wan, but what new chills could he add to the refreshingly self-contained original?
Wan’s smart approach to the sequel is to focus on the characters of Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga). The Warrens were major characters in the first film, but The Conjuring 2 is pitched as the continuing adventures of a couple who were possibly frauds in real life but are sweet, earnest, and totally badass here.
The Conjuring 2 starts like the first film, with a brief recounting of a separate haunting to set the mood. The Conjuring’s opening told the story of demon doll Annabelle (now star of her own series of spin-offs set in the James Waniverse). The Conjuring 2 begins with a peek into the famous case of a family in Amityville, New York driven from their Long Island home by swarming flies, ghosts, and the mounting debts that probably inspired them to concoct the story in the first place. The real Ed and Lorraine Warren were involved in the Amityville investigation, a controversial association Wan shrugs off in the film as a way to establish the fictional Warrens as put-upon prophets doing thankless work. The whitewashing of history can be forgiven here because the Warrens work so well as characters. Wilson and Farmiga are heroes we can root for, saving desperate families from otherworldly evil.
The Conjuring 2 loosely follows the structure of the first film, giving us a new family terrorized in a new haunted house. This film focuses on the famous story of the Enfield Poltergeist. In this case, a British family was targeted by the spirit of a dead man who wanted them to leave what used to be his house. Wan ups the stakes by giving the Warrens, especially Lorraine, a personal connection to the evil inhabiting the house — a demon who appears in the blasphemous form of a killer nun. It’s not the first time Wan has upped the stakes in a sequel by giving audiences a more specific evil. While the first Insidious film held back on revealing the red-and-black demon until the end, Insidious 2 fleshes out the backstory of a background ghost from the first film. The specifics of The Conjuring 2’s main baddie are mercifully vague, but it requires a certain suspension of disbelief to accept the demon as a pond-hopping threat in both America and England.
The spooky stuff in The Conjuring 2 is largely by the book. Wan is a master at terror in tight hallways, but if you’ve seen the original Conjuring this film can feel like a retread. The sequel has more flashy ghouls, including a sharp-toothed, spindle-legged “Crooked Man,” but the over-the-top ghost effects never approach the pure terror of the first film’s “hide and clap” sequence.
What elevates The Conjuring 2 above a cash grab sequel is the central relationship between Ed and Lorraine. Horror tends to traffic in awful people meeting terrible fates. Not here. The Warrens are not only sympathetic, they are a model married couple. They love and support each other, besting transdimensional threats as a team. The Conjuring 2 is as much a love story as horror film. Audiences looking solely for jump scares may not dig the ooey-gooey moments (including a borderline cheesy singalong of “Can’t Help Falling in Love”) but those open to a supernatural story with feeling will find a respite from the genre’s usual gloom.
The Conjuring 2’s Blu-ray release brings the horror home, with chills limited only by screen size and sound system wattage. The 1080p 2.40:1 transfer is a gorgeous reproduction of the digital source, with sharp details and deep shadows. The palette tends toward the cool colors of a rainy London, broken through in key moments by hits of bold color. The 7.1 Dolby TrueHD (or Dolby Atmos, if you’ve got the rig) soundtrack reveals Wan’s carefully considered sound design. From treble to bass and front to back, the surround mix balances dialogue, effects, and Joseph Bishara’s haunting score.
Along with a digital copy of the film, The Conjuring 2 (Blu-ray) comes with a short-ish list of bonus features that, besides illuminating the filmmaking process, seem desperate to convince us the Enfield Poltergeist haunting was real:
“Crafting The Conjuring 2” (10:09): A making-of overview with cast and crew interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.
“The Enfield Poltergeist: Living the Horror” (12:46): This featurette has interviews with people who were involved in the real Enfield case in 1977, including grown up Janet and Margaret Hodgson and Lorraine Warren.
“Creating Crooked” (6:44): When I originally saw The Conjuring 2, I assumed the terrifying Crooked Man was full CG, but in fact he was an amazing practical effect brought to life by 7 foot beanpole actor Javier Botet in make-up.
“The Conjuring 2: Hollywood’s Haunted Stage” (5:08): Paranormal investigator and Hollywood backlot security guard Johnny Matook takes a camera crew on a tour of so-called “haunted” studio sets. It’s by far the least convincing evidence of ghostly activity on the disc.
“The Sounds of Scary” (7:00): A profile of Joseph Bishara’s approach to the film’s score, from haunting strings to the tinny toy Crooked Man tune.
Deleted Scenes (6:31): A handful of scenes that add a bit more scares and character development.
The Conjuring 2 isn’t the freshest take on horror. It covers similar ground as the original in less scary ways, with an old-fashioned focus on the paranormal that doesn’t quite jive with the best current ndie horror. Even so, I love that there is room in a genre that too often traffics in misery for a story about the power of love to triumph over evil. James Wan movies aren’t necessarily morality plays ala The Twilight Zone, but they share a sense of justice to balance the terror. The Warrens are people we root for and care about, and yes even sing Elvis songs with. Whatever the truth behind the real couple, their onscreen counterparts continue to make for compelling horror. Like Wan, I’ll follow them anywhere.