Friday, June 10, 2016

Ghosts, Busted: The Conjuring 2



This review originally appeared on SFist.com.

The Conjuring was one of those rare kinds of of horror movies: An impressive cast, some solid scares, and almost universal critical praise. A sequel was inevitable, especially since there's a tall pile of stories to choose from involving real-life ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren, (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga).

The Conjuring 2 begins in 1977, with the Warrens' involvement in the aftermath of the "Amityville Horror" case, and them trying to fight the growing public belief that the whole thing was a hoax. They, of course, have no doubts it was all true, especially after Lorraine sees a demon that looks like Marilyn Manson in a nun habit walking around the house's basement. This demon follows them home, and its presence, and visions of Ed's death, convince Lorraine they should stop taking cases and instead stay home and continue to ignore their teenage daughter. (Seriously, I was convinced she was a ghost, there's so little attention paid to her.)

Meanwhile, in Enfield, England, newly divorced mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O'Connor) and her four children are dealing with weird things in their new home. And I'm not talking about the house's disturbingly dirty walls, or the four foot deep bog of water in the basement. Strange noises, furniture being pushed by invisible hands, and youngest daughter Janet's (Madison Wolfe) sleepwalking/sleeptalking episodes eventually force the Hodgson family to, in one of the film's welcome moments of levity, literally run out of the house screaming.

Janet becomes the focus of a ghost named "Bill," who speaks through her in a chain smoker's rasp, claiming the house is his, and that he died in a old leather armchair in the living room. That's the kind of information that would have me instantly picking up the phone to schedule a big trash day pick-up, but of course the Hodgsons decide to keep it. (It really does tie the depressingly decrepit room together.)

The case becomes the focus of a BBC special, (you can watch the real one here), and when none of England's supernatural investigators are able to help the family rid themselves of Bill, the Warrens are called in by the Catholic church, to see if they can prove the haunting is real, so the church can do a sanctioned exorcism.

So, despite Lorraine's misgivings about taking on cases, and despite it being Christmastime, and despite them having a teenage daughter who would probably like to spend that Christmas with her creepy parents, the Warrens arrive in England to do some ghost busting.

The Enfield case has been called England's Amityville, and it's true there are similarities, the biggest being they were both eventually deemed enormous hoaxes. The real Janet was caught on film banging a broom on the ceiling, bending spoons, and hiding tape recorders. While there are several hours of audio recordings of "Bill," there are only a few seconds of film where we can see Janet speaking in his voice.

The movie doesn't ignore this skepticism. In fact, it's a central part of the plot. But it kind of wants to have its scary cake and fling it across the room too. It's easy enough to believe a kid could fake some voices and perform some slight of hand with regard to moving objects. But the film tosses in things like a giant creepy "crooked man" cartoon come to life, that ridiculous haunted bog in the basement, and, of course, a demon, that it's hard to understand how anyone, especially the Warrens, would doubt any of it.

Director James Wan is a big fan of "cat scares," those moments in horror movies when someone is walking around in the dark and then something jumps out at them, followed by a scream or loud music cue. Those moments never scare me, because despite their basis in the unexpected, they're totally expected.

What Wan does best are the slower build ups to scares, and moments that are less "BOO!" and more subtle.The best scene in the movie shows Ed, with his back turned away, interviewing "Bill." All we can see during the long take is the out-of-focus shape of Janet in the background, a shape that may or may not be...shifting. A few more moments like that, fewer jump scares, and The Conjuring 2 could have been the rarest of sequels: one that matches the excellence of the original. Instead, it falls into the old sequel trap of giving us more that actually feels like less.

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