There’s a lot of charm in The Conjuring 2, maybe more than it should considering it takes place in a grey house, on a grey street, in a part of London that seemingly thunderstorms every night. For some reason this family felt more natural, more caring than the families one typically sees in these horror movies— everyone is believed, everyone tries their best to maximize each other’s safety. There’s a sing-along number and a dance and that might just be about maximizing the value of paying for an Elvis song but it’s very sweet in a genre that sometimes feels as if it is just trying to maximize the unpleasantness it can dish out. I’m still far too easily scared by horror movies to consider myself a real fan but this was a nice movie, a movie I don’t regret sitting through.
The Conjuring 2 is based on a true story. They very much want you to know that. They tell you before the movie, they tell you again after and then they spend the first section of the credits showing pictures of the real life people and events next to pictures from the movie. The real life incident is widely considered to be a hoax and learning that really diminished the movie for me. (That feels a little strange to say. I know that nothing in most movies has really happened. Crimson Peak is complete hogwash.) Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers bear no real resemblance to any actual people. The realities of fiction never impede on my enjoyment there, but I think there’s something about being sold very hard on the idea that this is a true story, that this ghost is real that to find out that it’s fairly documented as not real kind of leaves me with a sense of “what did we do all that for then?” that’s pervasive and inescapable.
Between Saw, Insidious, and now The Conjuring, James Wan is responsible for three of the biggest horror franchises of the 21st century, and he’s an undoubted master of his craft. The main demon is a fantastic piece of design work, but what stands out is this stunning sequence early in the film where the demon is a shadow and then manifests through a painting of itself and it sounds kind of basic in text but it’s a series of arresting visuals, the true work of a master. The flip side of this is I am so familiar with Wan’s work at this point that his less ambitious sequences are starting to feel a little paint-by-number. I know that the fire truck is coming back out of the tent. I know that the zoetrope is going to be used to set up a larger scare. I know the ways Wan likes to be scary and when he plays with it it’s amazing, but when he falls back on it it’s starting to feel tired.
I’ve never seen a modern demonic possession movie that I thought had a stand out performance and this is no exception. Madison Wolfe does a good job playing a creepy possessed child, but I’ve seen that so many times that I’m starting to suspect it might be easy. Isn’t every child in the world a little creepy? And the effects seem to be doing a lot of the heavy lifting (heavy levitating?) these days anyway. James Wan horror movies seem to be Patrick Wilson’s entire career at this point, and he’s gotten good at blustery confidence followed by sheer terror in the third act but there’s nothing new in this performance. There’s nothing cringe-y or terrible— it’s just kind of there. The actors feel like they’re just part of the set, the real star is the camera work, the editing, and the sound design.
I’m often unhappy seeing horror movies for work but I didn’t get that this time. We’re probably reaching the end of this phase of James Wan’s career, he wasn’t permanently lured away from horror with Furious 7 but Aquaman is calling… and I have to imagine at some point the prestige of more “mainstream” films will pull him away forever. The Conjuring 2 feels a lot like what I imagine seeing The Rolling Stones is like; they play the hits and while there are probably moments of unexpected delight, what you’re mostly there for is a sense of comfort and familiarity. I feel that nostalgia for Wan’s horror movies at this point and while I didn’t particularly like them, I respect the level of craft and the place in the horror canon. I lost this particular war but I don’t particularly mind the peace.