Film discussion

Looking back at… The Conjuring 2

It’s not very often that Hollywood produces a film chock full of jump scares, and yet can also take the time to have Patrick Wilson lead a sing-along of an Elvis Presley song with a supernaturally haunted British family, but it kind of sums up James Wan’s sequel in a nutshell.

Released in 2016, three years after the first film and two years after the first spin-off in the shape of Annabelle, The Conjuring 2 grabs the work of real-life couple the Warrens with both hands and explores their investigations into not one but two infamous real-life cases. The prologue sees them putting the finishing touches to an investigation into the infamous Amityville case, itself the inspiration behind a successful franchise in the late 70s and 80s, before introducing us to the Hodgson family, who were at the centre of one of the most famous cases of paranormal activity in the UK: the Enfield Haunting.

With Wan returning to the director’s chair, as well as screenwriter brothers Carey and Chad Hayes, The Conjuring 2 doesn’t deviate too far from what they did with the first one, and yet there is an argument to be made here that is still a worthy sequel to the original. It may not add anything new to the formula established first time out, but it does what it sets out to do very well, and there are one or two pieces of storytelling that mark it out as somewhat unafraid to take a few risks. For starters, Ed and Lorraine are kept at a distance throughout most of the first half. The film takes its time to put the audience front and centre of the Enfield Haunting and the plight of the Hodgson family, particularly Janet (Madison Wolfe, channeling Linda Blair from The Exorcist at times) and mother Peggy, played by Frances O’Connor.

Amazingly for a horror film in this day and age, Wan shows no sign of trying to cut to the chase too quickly and instead goes for a slow build. We cut back and forwards between London, and Ed and Lorraine Warren’s home in the US, with more emphasis on the Hodgsons, thereby building up the dread and suspense and scares before the Warrens get involved.

It may have been a risky move; part of the first film’s brilliance was Farmiga and Wilson’s chemistry, and the way the film filtered itself through their happy and stable relationship despite the terrifying things they investigate. But amazingly for a modern-day horror film, and one loaded with some truly effective jump scares, Wan shows a lot of restraint and has clearly learned a lot from what one can assume have been many, many viewings of some of Hollywood’s best genre films of the 70s. He never cuts to the chase too quickly, and the film earns its 133 minutes running time. By the time we get to the last act of the film, the suspense has been built superbly and the scares have really got their hooks into you.

In fact, it says a lot about how good the work here is that when the film slows down a tad for the Hodgsons and the Warrens to have that sing-along to Elvis, it works on an emotional level and never comes off as cheesy or sentimental. If anything, it simply adds one of those little smiles to your face that you try to fight but can’t help but give in to. Then it’s followed by a moment that makes you jump out of your skin.

While many genre products nowadays rely so much on the ideas of jump scares, most of the times the effect proves more wearisome, but it has to be said that Wan utilizes it superbly. Even when you know it’s coming, Wan finds a way to subvert expectations and use the effect in a way that still comes as a surprise. Better yet, Wan’s direction and the screenplay by the Brothers Hayes ensures that one cares for the characters. The Conjuring 2 doesn’t exist solely as a scare machine: it builds itself into a wonderful, frightening world with a central relationship that you care for, and a supporting cast that you want to survive the onslaught.

At the heart of the film, and the flagship Conjuring installments themselves, are the Warrens. Once again portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, one truly gets the sense of how much they care for each other. Even the final scene is of them dancing and smiling to each other, a beautiful respite after wall to wall scares, ending the film on a hopeful note.

Despite the scares and fright tactics, there is very little in the way of nihilism here. The Conjuring 2 may be an unabashed mainstream horror film and part of a larger universe, but it cares for its characters, while it is unashamed in its approach to how those characters deal with their experiences through their own religious and spiritual beliefs without being critical of them, or using their religion as a means to mock them. This goes for both its regulars and its – for lack of a better term – ‘guest stars’.

Like the last film with Lilli Taylor and Ron Livingston, the second film sees Frances O’Connor, Maria Doyle Kennedy and Simon McBurney amongst the cast list this time. This gives proceedings the feel of a film that has genuinely come from 70’s Hollywood, given that horror movies in that period weren’t above having big, respectable names show up, that sometimes felt like you would never see in a genre film like it.

Being an American film, there are moments when some of the emphasis on the British setting is on the nose. When we first see London it’s accompanied by The Clash’s London’s Calling, making it feel as if every American movie has to use that song when it moves to London because it has the city in the title. Having said that, the use of a UK location gives the film a different feel than last time, and better yet the production clearly went to London to film scenes there instead of trying to simply replicate it in Los Angeles or New York. The majority of the interiors, admittedly, were shot at Warner Bros. studios in Burbank, California, but it never feels like it leaves London during the UK scenes.

The embracing of real-world cases this time around does threaten to open the film up a little to potential controversy. The legitimacy of Amityville and Enfield have always been open for debate, and interestingly the film at one point does raise the possibility of the events in Enfield having been faked. But this isn’t The X-Files, and an open ending is not on the cards, as we build towards a masterclass in genre filmmaking with ghosts, jumpscares, a thunderstorm, possession, and things that go bump in the night. Ambiguity is not in the interest of The Conjuring. If it looks like a ghost, it’s most definitely a ghost then.

Once again, as every other studio, including Warner Bros. themselves, try to get their own cinematic universe going, The Conjuring went and did it almost by accident, with the second film completely embracing the notion of it. We’re introduced to The Nun, who is set to star in her own movie this September, Annabelle makes another cameo appearance, while The Crooked Man zoetrope, itself at the heart of one of the film’s best scares, is set in the Warren’s basement come the end of the film, and what’s the betting he’ll be getting his own film soon.

Remarkably, the film ends with a bittersweet moment that cannot help but make one smile. Genuinely romantic and positive, while the spin-offs look set to come in droves, here’s hoping it’s not too long before Lorraine and Ed are back on the big screen.

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