James Wan’s 2013 hit The Conjuring was a pretty successful blend of haunted-house ghost story and demonic-possession horror, part Poltergeist, part The Exorcist, relying more on suspense and creepy dread than jump scares and disturbing images. Horror, like comedy, is among the toughest genres to do well; it’s easy to make viewers snicker or jump, but hard to make them shake with laughter or with fear.
A horror sequel is tougher still, since dread depends in part on characters, and ideally viewers, not knowing the lay of the land. Fresh from the critical and popular success of Furious 7, Wan goes bigger and splashier here than in the first Conjuring. Metaphorically splashier, I mean; it’s not very bloody, but it’s bloody scary, thanks to Wan’s skills and some shrewd choices by Chad and Carey Hayes, the screenwriting brothers (both Christians) who wrote both films.
This turns out to be prologue; the new film isn’t an Amityville remake, but it invokes the notorious case for two reasons. First, it establishes a sense of dread and menace as the baseline for a story (the Enfield Poltergeist in north London) that, at least in terms of the actual reported events, seems to have been less terrifying than the cases behind the other films. Second, Lorraine’s experiences at Amityville give her a reason to want to get out of the demon-hunting business.
This anxious ambivalence is crucial to The Conjuring 2, since after what we’ve seen the Warrens survive, it’s hard to be properly frightened for them now unless they’re genuinely frightened themselves, if not for themselves, then for one another. It’s easy to be scared for Hodgson family, consisting of a lone mother (Frances O’Connor) living with two daughters and two sons in a London council house in the late 1970s. Things get off on an ominous note as the girls play with a homemade Ouija board before stowing it under the bed. (“Is Dad ever coming back?” the younger asks the spirits, highlighting the absent father and the broken marriage — another risk factor, along with the Ouija board, common to this film and The Exorcist.)
More creatively, Wan gets mileage out of a child’s zoetrope that depicts an animated figure of a walking man and plays a tune to the nursery rhyme “There Was a Crooked Man.” The zoetrope’s “Crooked Man” becomes a 1970s English stand-in for the Slender Man, a viral Internet-based monster created by Eric Knudsen that has inspired actual murderous attacks by children. All this is more original than the clichéd creepy doll Annabelle from the original film (which inspired a widely panned spinoff film).
Along with the Crooked Man, evil in The Conjuring 2 wears two other faces. One may belong to a former inhabitant of the Hodgsons’ house; the other is a hellish mockery of something sacred, as Lorraine rightly describes it. What’s going on here? Ambiguity, even misdirection, are among horror filmmakers’ key assets. (I’ll say this much: This is one of the only films I’ve seen in which one of the most predictable yet inexplicable aspects of spectral behavior — the spirits’ oblique, mysterious mode of communication — is implicitly accounted for.)
Although the spirits in The Conjuring 2 are markedly less subtle than in in the first film, as with the first film some of the scariest moments are also the quietest; the shoe that doesn’t drop is often more unnerving than the one that does. The movie’s most palpably evil spectre is certainly creepy in the intense early scene in which it first appears right behind someone’s back — but in its most effective scene, and the one scene in the movie likeliest to creep you out when you are home alone at night in the dark, we see it standing silently at the end of a hallway, then turn and glide away. The quiet scene that follows, involving light and shadow, is far more dreadful than all the shaking furniture and gravelly voices in the world.
Despite the showier manifestations, the sequel also makes more room for critical skepticism, at least for the characters. Mirroring the real case, in which skeptics found evidence of a hoax, Franka Potente is on hand as a real-life parapsychologist who takes a dim view of the phenomena at the Hodgson’s home. I appreciate this narratively, though it doesn’t play to the film’s horror, simply because the audience has seen too much for any shadow of doubt. Wan’s bag of tricks in this film includes combining sudden action with unnatural stillness through quick edits as well as the use of soft focus, particularly in one extended shot, so that we don’t know exactly what we’re looking at.
So much for the depiction of evil; what about goodness? As with the first film, the Catholic Church is present on the fringes of the story, here in the person of a priest who calls on the Warrens about the Enfield case. Because a real exorcist in clericals would alter the equation and take the focus away from the Warrens, the Hayeses find reasons to keep them away. (In this case we’re told the Enfield case has become a media circus, and church authorities want the Warrens to quietly investigate — just investigate! — before becoming officially involved in a potential hoax.)
The Warrens’ faith never wavers, and provides the interpretive lens for the film’s events. Ed carries a crucifix he’s had since his youth, which he says has always protected him from evil; trying to comfort one of the girls, he tells a childhood story about confronting an evil presence under his bed confident that whatever was down there, God would “kick its butt.” (On the other hand, a roomful of crosses provide little resistance to supernatural evil. Apparently you need a real crucifix with a corpus — ideally blessed by a priest, presumably.) As with the original, these religious themes are mixed with more dubious elements. A ritual in the prologue isn’t called a séance, but it sure looks like one; Lorraine’s spiritual sensitivity is described in pious terms (“Your visions are a gift from God,” Ed tells her), but she seems as much clairvoyant or medium as visionary.
Ultimately, the most persuasive image of goodness may not be crosses or crucifixes, but the Warrens themselves, who are so decent, upright and loving, they’re almost too good to be true. (How many movies can you say that about?) A spirit of positivity, solidarity and even fun is as important as anything else Ed brings to Enfield. If malicious spirits are drawn to negative emotions, a guitar and a sense of humor might be as useful in their own way as a crucifix in banishing darkness.
Thirty years after The Exorcist, when it comes to fighting the powers of hell, the Catholic Church still has the heavy artillery, as Roger Ebert once wrote.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.