The Conjuring 2 (2016) by James Wan
Review by Andrew Swafford
An 11-year-old girl, tormented nightly by sleepwalking, nightmares, and visions, is being interviewed by a British news crew about her supernatural experiences when suddenly her body is overtaken by a presence. Out of her mouth comes the voice of an angry elderly man, who admits to haunting the girl and her family. The news crew begins questioning the man, and eventually asks him why he is being so cruel to these innocent people; his immediate response: “I like to watch them scream.”
This simple line from The Conjuring 2, an archetypal haunted house tale, says a lot about the ethos of the spooks in this movie. There’s very little consistency or logic to how the monsters in this world operate, and that’s because they don’t have a greater motivation or reason for existence outside of giving the characters (and therefore the audience) a big scare. The ghosts here are mostly interested in yanking children’s bedsheets off, slamming doors, changing the channel on the TV, and standing at the end of hallways with a blank look, only to give out a loud roar when acknowledged. None of these actions are really diabolical, despite the fact that The Conjuring movies center around the deeply religious real-life Warren family (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), who go out of their way to establish that all the monsters they investigate are actual demons from the spiritual realm as it is described by the Christian Bible.
Far from truly evil, the ghosts in The Conjuring 2 act more like Poltergeist-esque metaphysical pranksters, who really just like messing with people while putting on a dramatic flair—like when Vera Farmiga is confronted by a lone shadow that suspensefully walks along a wall until merging with a portrait only to pause ominously before charging at her. The action doesn’t make any sense—if the demon wanted to kill her or possess her body, surely there would be a more practical and less theatrical way of doing this. But it’s clear that these spiritual beings prioritize screams over actual harm. Consider a moment from the final act in this film in which Patrick Wilson’s character is temporarily blinded and can’t see the giant Jack-Skellington-esque monster called The Crooked Man creeping along behind him. Vulnerable and incapacitated, this would be the perfect time for the monster to attack Wilson and finish him off once and for all—but The Crooked Man doesn’t inflict any pain, because he’s not interested. What he really wants (and eventually gets, when the vision-impairment wears off) is for Wilson to see him and shriek.
Thinking too hard about the antagonists’ motivation leads to The Conjuring 2 being more comical than it is actually scary. Can you imagine a version of this movie that follows The Crooked Man as he sneaks up on people to say “boo” before vanishing? By way of counterexample, imagine this: A version of Alien from the Alien’s perspective. What about The Babadook from the Babadook’s perspective, or Jaws from the shark’s perspective? None of these hypothetical movies would likely be as dramatic and compelling as their real-life counterparts, but they would still probably make sense—the monsters in these films have a logic to them, and you know how they function and what they want.
In the world of James Wan, this is not the case. Inconsistency abounds: Sometimes the ghosts appear before humans; other times, they’re just invisible presences. Sometimes they can appear in the daytime; other times, turning on a light banishes them from existence. Sometimes they can speak English to communicate; other times, they can only roar and point. Sometimes they have to be invited into a room; other times, they seem to be everywhere at once. The lack of cohesion isn’t surprising, either, considering that there were significant rewrites, reshoots, and a twist added after the fact that completely reframes the nature of the movie’s spirits. (And all this about the monsters having no internal consistency or motivation is not even to mention how lazily they are designed, which would make Guillermo Del Toro weep--a demon nun, really? I would say Wan is mostly just afraid of old people, but I don’t think he’s thinking about it that hard.)
On one level, this inconsistency does sound properly scary—an evil that can’t be understood or contained, seeming to abide by no rules whatsoever, would be the hardest to stop or avoid. A ghost could literally be anywhere, doing any thing, at any moment—which gives James Wan a blank check to do whatever he wants with visuals to repeatedly jolt his audience upright, never feeling safe. It’s kind of cheating, but this guy doesn’t care. James Wan is a genre director through and through, and his philosophy as a storyteller is the same as the ghostly old man I described earlier—he just likes to watch people scream, and seems primarily concerned with finding Hitchcockian methods of doing manipulating his audience efficiently.
He does it with a classical style, too, which is rare in mainstream horror. The Conjuring 2 opens with a Citizen Kane-esque zoom through a window, and just afterwards pulls off a very subtle and off-putting tracking shot that pushes in slowly with the camera tilted slightly to one side. James Wan composes shots and lights sets beautifully, and a film professor could take any individual frame from either Conjuring movie and use it as a centerpiece in a lecture about immersive set design, lighting, and color. Wan has a serious penchant for taking an ordinary domestic space (your house at night, when you get up for a drink of water) and stylizing it, with deep blues and hints of red, to the point where it feels like a place that exists between worlds.
However, two things keep the visuals from reaching their full potential here: (1) the aforementioned lack of logic and episodic nature of the scares keep the film from being compelling as a cohesive narrative, and (2) Wan’s camerawork is not nearly as impressive and effective here as it was in the first Conjuring film. That movie is a muscular, physical exercise in camera movement and camera placement, filled with unbelievable tracking shots and perspective shifts. In every individual shot of a scare-scene, it’s clear that Wan has spent time deliberating over the question: where is the least comfortable place for the camera to be in this moment? 2013’s The Conjuring a really viscerally scary film that seems like it exists within physical space, never the cheap-o ether of CGI-land—but it has almost nothing going on in terms of characterization or thematics, unfortunately.
The Conjuring 2, on the other hand, seems to trade one for the other. There is far less inventive and visceral camerawork going on this sequel, and after the first 30 minutes of the movie have passed, it seems as though Wan has settled into a rhythm of purely perfunctory shot composition (even trading practical effects for noticeably cheap CGI in a few moments). However, I have to give this movie credit for going above and beyond with its characterization and thematics. For both Conjuring films, all the lack of monster logic is grounded by two human characters: you have the incredibly charismatic performance of Patrick Wilson as Ed Warren and the surprisingly heartfelt performance of Vera Farmiga as Lorraine Warren. These two bring an adult seriousness to both of these movies, especially in the second one—The Conjuring 2 actually has a thematic arc about marriage, faith, and true love, which includes an amazing scene of Wilson playing Elvis Presely’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” on an acoustic guitar for his wife.
Unfortunately, there’s still a bit of a downside here: the more human and romantic side of this film was really effective on its own, but it felt entirely disconnected from the crazy bump-in-the-night hijinks that are focused on in the ghostly scenes. It is almost as if The Conjuring 2 is two films stapled together—an intimate human narrative about marriage, and a hyper-manipulative jump-scare-fest full of badly designed and illogically motivated monsters. Wan is straddling a line here, between making purely visceral genre films and making meaningful narratives about humanity—I think he has the ability to merge the two into a horror film like Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2009), in which every jump is both actually scary and actually important.