Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Films of 2016: The Conjuring 2

In my review of 2013’s The Conjuringwhich I’m re-posting this Friday in full -- I wrote:

“The Conjuring feels more like a TV pilot -- an inducement to franchise-i-fication -- than a horror film with the potential and desire to transgress, shatter decorum, or undercut convention.

To put this all another way: The Conjuring is a great roller-coaster ride and you’ll have a good time watching it. Have no mistake about that.

But it simply isn’t the kind of horror movie that will trouble your slumber, or linger in your memory.  The film is entertaining in a generic “summer blockbuster way,” yet never quite succeeds as a work of transgressive art…which is the highest calling of the horror movie…”

The Conjuring 2 (2016) is, simply put, the second episode of that franchise. 

The film is very much about building upon and cementing the world of the main characters, paranormal investigators Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed (Patrick Wilson) Warren. Like its predecessor, The Conjuring 2 is not really about scaring us with sub-text or transgression. No structural or social taboo lines are crossed here so as to trouble your slumber.  The plot is perfectly predictable. The outcome is a foregone conclusion.

This a horror film made for audiences who can brook only minimally -- and for a short duration -- the concept of ambiguity.

And yet on the terms laid out above, I enjoyed The Conjuring 2.  And perhaps I enjoyed it even more than I enjoyed its predecessor.  

Perhaps because I knew what to expect this time: a horror film you can take the kiddies to.

The film’s running time also signifies The Conjuring 2’s lack of ambition to be genuinely disturbing. The sequel runs a leisurely 134 minutes, and the best, most effective horror movies typically tend to be under 90 minutes. 

Again, this movie is over two hours -- well over two hours -- because it provides us lots of time to get to know the lead characters and their world.  If one views this as simply an investment in the overall series, so that we identify with the Warrens even more in The Conjuring 3, one can make some sense of the approach.

This is a series, with continuing characters, a distinctive context (the 1970s) and The Conjuring 2 is a respectable second episode that cements some of the franchise ingredients.  For instance, we have now had two scenes now that are the equivalent of the James Bond pre-title sequence, once involving Annabelle, and one involving the Amityville House.  And both movies have ended with “real” photographs of their respective true-life cases (the Perron Case of 1971, and the Enfield Poltergeist case of 1977-1979.)

What audiences ultimately get out of The Conjuring 2 is dependent, largely, I suppose, by what is sought.  I don’t know that a scary horror movie needs a scene of Ed Warren playing the guitar (and imitating Elvis) to a bunch of sad kids at Christmas time.  But a series that wishes for audiences to invest in the humanity of the lead characters may very well go there.

As usual, director James Wan demonstrates here a total mastery of mechanics here. He can orchestrate and execute the best jump scares in the genre. Again, that’s a matter of mechanics; a kind of (admittedly) difficult algebraic equation that consists of such variables as silence, volume shifts, objects in the foregrounds and, not least of all, the misdirection (or re-direction) of the eye in the frame.

For me, horror is actually a lot more than periodic jump scares, effective or not. A really good horror film has to ask questions about the society that made it; or cross lines of decorum (structurally and thematically).

The Conjuring 2 doesn’t do any of that. Intellectually it’s as much as a bust as its predecessor was.

But in terms of character development, and making the movie experience like an amusement park rollercoaster ride, The Conjuring 2 is a worthy enough “second” episode, especially in a time when the lines between television and film experiences are becoming totally blurred.

“I like to hear them scream…”

While investigating the Amityville house with her husband, Ed (Patrick Wilson), Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) experiences a vision featuring a terrifying spectral nun.  In her vision, Lorraine sees her beloved husband killed.  Following the phantasm’s end, she tells Ed it is time to quite their investigations.

But a poor family, the Hodgson’s, are in great danger in Great Britain. The spirit of a nasty old man -- who died in the family house -- seems intent on disrupting the family.

Lorraine and Ed agree to consult. But as they delve deeper into the case, they learn that it is all a shell game, and that a dangerous demon is behind the torment of the Hodgsons, and even the Warren’s involvement.


“This is as close to Hell as I want to get…”

After everything we’ve seen, there isn’t much that rattles us anymore,” Lorraine Warren notes at the start of The Conjuring 2. 

Jaded audiences of 2016 might feel the same way.  Fortunately, James Wan shows an amazing fluency with the camera in this film, proving that he has few equals when it comes to executing scenes of stark terror or surprise.

In particular, in The Conjuring 2, achieves much by limiting the audience’s point of view, and pivoting the camera back and forth (often repeatedly) from safe zone to danger zone, and back. It’s the visual equivalent of peeking out from under the blankets on your bed to see if the room is safe.  It is surprisingly effective, and this set up is repeated frequently, but successfully in the film.

Another early scene involves “The Nun” appearing in Ed’s office, and coming through -- creepily -- a painting. The scene’s execution shows a nearly Carpenter-esque eye for lightness and darkness; with a white, demonic face (not unlike Michael Myers’) emerging from the impenetrable darkness.

These moments are creepy and startling, but because they do not tell us something about our world, or operate in the terrain of the subtext, they hold virtually no power beyond the moment.  Again, nothing that appears in the film will trouble your night-time mind, especially since the movie -- like its predecessor --goes to so much trouble to wrap things up neatly. 

For me, a great horror film is one that illuminates the human condition, and that uses form to reflect narrative content.

The Conjuring 2 fails that test.

In fact, much like the movie I will review here on Thursday (The Darkness), The Conjuring 2 is one of those movies that you can pretty much predict accurately from Frame One.  The story is one of one terror hiding behind another for truly sinister purposes (which was, you may recall, a gimmick in Insidious [2010] too).

And when all is said and done, the movie is just about calling out a bully.  You have to name that Bully, ad prevent him from inflicting “emotional distress” on both the spirits of the living and the dead.

Once a horror movie works on such basic, childish terms, it no longer becomes scary.

That doesn’t mean it no longer becomes involving. Or that it fails to entertain.  

Only that it loses its capacity to really unsettle an audience in psychological terms.  Here -- as with the first film -- everything is done at a facile psychological level.

But the roller-coaster does have its dips and turns, and so The Conjuring 2 -- fronted ted by two enormously likable lead actors/characters -- never outlasts its welcome, even at its inordinate length.  I say this, too, as someone who has a bit of trouble with/skepticism about the Warrens and their approach, even as it is depicted in the film.

First, by the details of the movie (if not reality…) they ever seem to be home for their daughter, who must surely have one of the loneliest lives imaginable. Her parents are always traveling all over the world for either investigations or TV PR trips.   So much of the film is about the love story between Lorraine and Ed, and their daughter seems like an afterthought. She’s on the outside looking in.

Secondly, this movie knowingly and irresponsibly sets up straw men for the Warrens to knock down.

For example, the investigators encounter a nasty, disrespectful skeptic on the Becky Rivers Show, and argue, essentially, that we shouldn’t let facts get in the way of our “faith.” 

This kind of belief is exactly why The Conjuring 2 is so perfect for this anti-intellectual time in our history.  We would rather believe “nonsense” that supports a pre-existing belief system than actually judge a matter by the available or investigated facts.  The skeptic in the movie is portrayed as a horrible, miserable human being, while the Warrens are warm, supportive people of belief.   But the Warrens, of course, have a case they don’t have to prove.

Essentially, you can win any argument by noting that people should just have faith.  It’s much harder to erect a case with evidence and science. But the movie takes the easy way out.  The Warrens’ faith is, of course, rewarded.

The Warrens should have to use faith and science, in conjunction, to investigate their cases, I feel. And their opponents should be whip-smart, data-driven skeptics, not straw men to be kicked down.

Technically The Conjuring 2 is accomplished, though not without some gaffes.  One such gaffe is the art design of the Amityville House in the 1970s.  It looks like a home restored by the Fixer Upper team, with neutral colors and a tasteful paint job.  Well, I lived in the 1970s.  Nobody had homes with that kind of color scheme.

Why do I mention this?  Well, again, it goes to context and intent, doesn’t it? The Conjuring films are not about presenting a supernatural case using evidence, or recreating the 1970s using, well, historical accuracy. 

Mainstream audiences don’t care about those things, so little thought is given to them.

Instead, the idea is simply to entertain and take up two (pleasant) hours of an audience’s life.  I’m fine with that, but as I’ve written before, I’m glad other horror filmmakers work to stimulate and challenge, not merely entertain.

I won’t say that a world in which all horror films are as psychologically empty as The Conjuring series is “as close to Hell” as I want to get.  That’s too harsh, and The Conjuring is not a bad film, or an unenjoyable one. 

It’s just that all these films feel like the illicit, dumbed-down children of Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973).  

And since we have to wait a long time between “episodes” of this series, it would be nice if the filmmakers actually gave the audience something to think about in the interim between installments.


1 comment:

  1. John, I extremely enjoyed your review of The Conjuring 2 because you covered all aspects of what worked and did not work in the sequel. On a lesser note, I totally agree regarding the Amityville House, that in the 1970s nobody had homes with that kind of color scheme. I am surprised the art/production design did not do better research on that. It might be minor, but because we were alive in the '70s it does pull the viewer[us] out of the film momentarily. John, your reviews are enlightening because you explore all things on screen.



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