I wasn’t going to see The Conjuring 2.
Let me back up. Way way back in 2004, yours truly was in his college years, in the throes of rampant horror fandom. I devoured new DVDs by the dozens, making up for lost time during my childhood and early teens when I was not only banned from horror films, but terrified of the very genre. Now, I was mainlining everything from Argento to De Palma, studio fare and grindhouse flicks, whatever I could get my hands on. At the time, the genre had been undergoing a low ebb in the cineplexes, with a few minor entries here and there but nothing like the heyday of the 80s, or the post-Scream late 90s. So, when I heard a ton of buzz on the internet about a new film called Saw from a promising new filmmaker named James Wan, I scrambled to catch it in theaters. Not being within walking distance of a theater and not owning a car, I had one last chance to borrow a friend’s car and go see a late show, since I couldn’t otherwise convince anyone to go with me. I got in my car, raced to the theater…and found out I was 20 minutes late for the last showing. Rather than spend the money anyway and miss the beginning of the movie, I figured I’d simply catch it on video later.
A year passed, and I excitedly rented a copy of Saw, watched it…and was severely disappointed. It wasn’t that the “torture porn” aspect of the film offended me (ask me to tell you my defense of Eli Roth’s Hostel films sometime), just that I found it incredibly overrated, the filmmaking on display trying too hard and the script too clever by half. I wrote off Wan as a non-starter, but then years later his Poltergeist riff Insidious was released to decent acclaim. Eager to give him another chance, I watched it…only to be let down again by a third act that managed to whiff all the admittedly decent tension the rest of the film built up. I was so soured on Wan as a filmmaker that I skipped altogether The Conjuring when it was in theaters, despite the good word of mouth it was getting. I was perfectly fine with parting ways with the director’s work, his overwrought style just not for me.
In the last two or so years, however, James Wan’s stock has gone up, not just financially but in the popular and critical consciousness. His Fast & Furious sequel, Furious 7, not only proved his mettle outside his chosen horror genre, but it was a solid entry in a fun film series that I appreciated. Then, I began seeing comments and reading articles from amateur and professional critics not only confessing that they enjoyed his films but that they believed them to display a craft, a talent that was unique and worthy of praise and placement alongside the great horror filmmakers of the past 30 years. The word “master” was used frequently. Feeling like I was taking crazy pills, I caved last week and rented the first The Conjuring, excited once again to hopefully have my prejudices proven wrong.
I hated it.
Well, “hated” is far too strong a word for a film I found merely bland and ineffective. This wasn’t the miserable failing ofInsidious again, just a well-meaning haunted house/exorcism picture that threw every single cliche and the kitchen sink into it, and managed to be too preoccupied with being super scary and serious to have any fun. The cast was decent but the characters indistinguishable, and unlike many of the classics of the genre, seemed to be going through the motions of this “true story” rather than have any message or philosophy or depth of its own. So, once again let down, I resolved to be done with Wan, to part ways for good this time.
Then, this past weekend, his new film The Conjuring 2 was released, and history repeated itself. Rave reviews from nearly every writer and source I follow, and a new deluge of folks leaving glowing comments about how great it was to have an official, new master of horror making films today. It was enough to give me a pop culture breakdown, feeling as if I was taking Mugatu-style crazy pills that I wouldn’t or couldn’t see what people saw in these films. Nonetheless, after I ranted on Facebook about it, I thought I was done. I wasn’t going to see it. Until my plans for last weekend fell through, and I suddenly found myself with free time on my hands and a burning desire to visit the movie theater. That’s when the madness overtook me, the curiosity beckoned, the need to know just WHAT it is that people like about this director. So I bought a ticket for a matinee of The Conjuring 2. And lo and behold, guess what?
I liked it.
Well, “liked” is a strong word, since I believe the film still shows problems that I’ve had with Wan’s work throughout his career, but the main issues — his lack of character depth, overstuffed narratives and botched endings to both scenes and entire films-are blissfully not present.
The film begins (nearly) immediately after the final scene of the first Conjuring, where Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are called to investigate a supposed haunting in Amityville, Long Island. Wan treats this cold open in a similar fashion to the “Annabelle” doll opening of the first film in that it’s only a prelude to the main story, a good choice given Amityville’s numerous cinematic depictions over the years. Smartly, it focuses solely on Lorraine’s experience, and serves to introduce the major conflict in the film rather than be a rehash of old events (or a remake of older films). Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in Enfield, England, a young girl (Janet Hodgson, played excellently by Madison Wolfe) and her family begin to be terrorized by a malevolent spirit haunting their small, squalid home. Events intensify until the Warrens are called upon by the church to unofficially investigate.
If that sounds like nearly exactly the first film’s plot, well, that’s because it is. But we horror lovers are not averse to formula, and it’s arguable that it’s that formula that keeps us coming back. What’s also great about the major similarity of structure and plot (at least for me) is that it also shows just how improved this film is from its predecessor. For one thing, the characters are much more distinguishable (I can easily recall all of the Hodgson’s first names, whereas I couldn’t even tell you how many kids the family had in the first Conjuring) and most have actual arcs, albeit stock ones. The production design is less comically oppressive (why why why would the family in the first Conjuring move into that rotting death trap of a house in the first place? Okay, sorry, back on topic) and if Wan does still indulge in overtly rotten floorboards and walls, at least it’s done in the service of the story and characters, serving to remind us of their social status and not just act as backdrops for the scare sequences. Those scare sequences are also much improved, with misdirections and trick shots galore, only this time the payoffs work too. It can’t be said enough how much this sequel improves upon the original, though perhaps the perfect example is how it does all this and manages to not only pick up a dropped plot thread from the first film, but explore and (mostly) resolve it.
The cast is uniformly solid, something that Wan’s work has never lacked in. In addition to Madison Wolfe’s excellent work, Frances O’ Connor is well cast as the family’s put-upon but loving working class mum, and Simon McBurney makes for a surprisingly sweet British paranormal investigator, giving an extra point of view on the paranormal activity, unlike the faceless and nameless helpers in the first film. However, the lion’s share of the praise goes to Wilson and Farmiga, and just as they were the bright spots of the first Conjuring, they’re even better here. Their warm and playful chemistry makes them a great couple to watch on screen, and their passionate intensity during their quests to defeat the evil spirits are made that much richer by their warmth in between. It’s a decent criticism to say that these films are ultimately a bit of propaganda for the real life Warrens (whose numerous investigations into the paranormal are still very much in dispute) but that’s largely due to what great work these two actors do.
Ultimately, the film is little more than a haunted house ride, as it doesn’t contain nor seemingly aspire to any deeper themes than “families stick together,” “love is great” and “it’s cool to have people believe in you.” But unlike the first film, it actually has a sense of fun, and Wan is more comfortable and assured at giving audiences a good ride. Sure, the music choices are still glaringly on the nose (using The Clash’s “London Calling” to indicate both place and time, and wait ’till you see what he does with The Bee Gees’ “I Started A Joke”) and the sound design is still filled with ominous booms, but they serve the film as a whole this time rather than act as horror prerequisites. The design of the ghosts and demons are still a bit over the top but used much more effectively, and although the film runs long, the extra time is used to great effect in letting us get to know the characters better. The film’s finale recalls Poltergeist, but at least it isn’t literally Poltergeist (something that couldn’t be said forInsidious, or for the first Conjuring‘s aping of The Exorcist).
As the credits rolled I was not only glad I’d seen the film, but I thought that I might actually like to see a third Conjuring. Since the film is currently #1 at the box office, that seems likely to happen, and Wan is too accomplished to stop making films now. I’m glad that The Conjuring 2 is a big step forward for him, and that mainstream horror is in better hands than I feared. It may have taken me a few years to get to the theater to see a James Wan horror film, but at least when I did it was worthwhile.
This article originally appeared on Pixcelation.com on June 16th, 2016.