James Wan, 2016, Canada-USA
Oh, surely full of the kind of stuff that a horror audience usually both laughs at and with: although not really marred by bad acting, it has bad dialogue and an over-earnestness that only amplifies the condescension of the conceit that this is a “true story”. Oh, it’s bad with a lack of focus because it’s so busy squeezing out a franchise. The popularity of the extending empires of James Wan’s ‘Insidious’ and ‘The Conjuring’ is probably down to the most obvious mainstreaming of horror slickly reduced to the noise/jump scares: not that horror fans don’t like them too, but they also act like your unhip uncle’s idea of “scareee” and “spookeeee”. They don’t care for depth, just noise/jump-scares that are supposed to sate that most superficial and perpetual horror qualification of “Was it scary?” Now, there is nothing wrong with just being a vehicle of dispensing horror vignettes – the recent ‘Terrified’ and ‘The Grudge’ series does that nicely – but for any artistry Wan has, there is something phoney at work here.
‘The Conjuring 2’ feels like his laziest yet, not really providing a truly distinctive scare or surprising set-up and frequently veering into unintentional comedy. The use of “I Started a Joke” to accompany the emotional moment when the girl is found falsifying the possession is hilarious – and then it rains for some pathetic fallacy; but I laughed out loud from the first chunk of dialogue when Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) is conducting a séance in Amityville (!) and tells those around the table, “Envision yourself in a halo of glowing white light. It will protect you.” It’s too professional to be in ‘Troll 2’ territory but it’s wading in the same shallow waters. But then again ‘Troll 2’ was sincerely intended, not realising how deliriously stupid and delightfully inept it was being*; ‘The Conjuring’ franchise by contrast is deeply cynical, peddling noise scares as fear and the “True Story” as some badge of validation, ransacking the grift of a couple of con artists for material.
It cares not for the truth: if it did, “Annabelle” would be a seemingly innocuous rag doll and the original “demon” Valek plaguing the Hodgsons wouldn’t have been swapped for the more franchise-friendly Nun; not that Valek was “the truth”, but just that his replacement by the Nun shows how fast and loose this will play with the source. And it also shoe-horns in The Crooked Man. The thing with ‘The Exorcist’ however silly it may be (and silliness is a general genre ingredient), there is no doubt that it absolutely and vividly believes in itself and so the silliness doesn’t matter; it doesn’t register because it’s too busy being unnerving. But yes, streaming trivia pop-up does say this is "loosely based" on the Warren's Enfield investigation and it's probably redundant to expect credibility. ‘The Conjuring 2’ is so starkly a shrug at the lowest common demands of horror tricks it has the conviction of someone jumping from a closet shouting “Boo!” and then getting all unconvincingly serious and earnest about the motivation.
With ‘The Conjuring’, there was at least no doubt that James Wan could stage and frame a scare, but aside from a prolonged Nun sequence in this sequel, this just feels indifferent and baggy. It’s unnecessarily over two hours long, which I guess allows for the inclusion of Patrick Wilson’s Elvis impersonation and gives him time to knock up a painting of The Nun (!) (“Hey, I know I’m no Picasso but I didn’t think it was that bad.”). It also allows a brief trip to Amityville at the start, but despite a pleasing reveal of the iconic Amityville windows (which can be seen as a nice nod to horror aficionados) it appears that that “true story” was just another set-up for The Nun.
In Enfield, Wan seems to have no idea that the cramped interiors of an English house would allow for all kinds of memorable claustrophobia and cramped cold corners: instead, we get a house with the most unconvincing interior; it’s too big and no poor family on their last pennies would not have such a place (and the “Trivia” pop up when streaming points out that the spooky chair’s corner changes size repeatedly). What’s amusing is that the film closes with a series of pictures of the real Enfield haunting and Hodgsons which imply the actual cramped conditions. And what about that seemingly permanently flooded basement? …and why don’t they just get rid of the apparently possessed chair? I’m sure the Warrens could have found space for it in their lounge.
And it’s a shame because Wan has proven he can set-up trashy scares (even if he then hammers the point home) and the cast of kids all seem to be acting with a great conviction even as the dialogue lets them down. It’s bright and glossy enough, but it’s unconvincing and has that unintentional comedy in that special way that horror can provide.
· See Michael Stephenson’s ‘Best Worst Movie’ on the making of ‘Troll 2’.