Review: The Conjuring 2 – Same great formula, basically same great taste

After crushing the box office with the seventh Fast and Furious movie (and before tackling Aquaman for Warner Bros and DC), James Wan returns to his roots with the sequel to one of his best horror films. When I first saw the trailer for The Conjuring 2 my first thought was: Didn’t they already do a Conjuring 2? After some furious googling I realized that they did a prequel to Conjuring 1 (the good, but not as good as Conjuring, Annabelle). It must have been Sinister 2 I was thinking of, or maybe it was Insidious 2, which came out a few years ago and was also directed by Wan (and also starred Patrick Wilson). They all kind of run together in my mind since they are all so similar in terms of how they dish out their scares. There’s an inherent familiarity to these new-age horror films. That’s not a bad thing: When the familiar thing in this case is “scaring your pants off” you really don’t have time in the film to say “this is just like that other movie…”

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In that regard, The Conjuring 2 offers up a lot of the same kinds of scares that viewers have come to expect from modern horror movies. It also shakes things up just enough, here and there, to make for a fresh and very entertaining experience. I jotted down six notes while watching this movie. These summarize my thoughts…

1. LIGHTS OUT

Okay so this first one isn’t actually a note from Conjuring 2: It’s about a film that was previewed just before the movie started. It comes out next month and this was the first I’ve heard of it. If you haven’t seen the trailer, it looks like it will fit right in with the other Blumhouse-style horror movies of the day. The premise is based around the old cliche that evil lurks in the absence of light (so “be afraid of the dark” and all that). Check out the trailer…

I’m sure it’ll be loaded with wonderful scares, but all I could think of as I watched it was…

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And speaking of scares…

2. Window Scares

Allow myself to quote…myself

…a different kind of scare: For lack of a better term let’s call it the “wait what am I supposed to be looking at, what is everyone getting so upseeeyaaaawhat is that in the window!” scare. James Wan, who gave this series (and The Conjuring films) its identity, loved to hide the boogeyman in plain sight, very still until he suddenly moved, drawing your eyes to him.

The reason the “what is that in the window” scares (henceforth: window scares) work so well is because they give our terror a third dimension. When something jumps out and yells boo, YOU are afraid. It doesn’t even have to be monster; it could be the main characters kid brother barging in during a game a tag, but just the suddenness of it is enough to give you a jolt (it helps that you go into the movie experience knowing at some point you’re going to get scared). So-called jump-scares can only go so far.

Window-scares work on a different level; they give you the big frights of a jump but keep the tension building until the movie finally does jump out and yell boo. Unlike jump-scares (where both you and the character are scared at the same time), window scares work more effectively because YOU see the terror but the character does not. You become a helpless spectator, knowing that it’s only a matter of time before the character sees the monster lurking in the shadows, or behind the window, or in another room, and in the meantime the yet-unseen monster is creeping and approaching.

There are few great examples of “window scares” in this movie but the most effective comes about a third of the way through it, once the horror has been well-established. There’s a moment where a character walks through a hallway, by an open room. As he does, he passes—unbeknownst to him—a person sitting silently in a rocking chair. The mysterious figure was covered in the shadows but the outline was there if you were looking for it. After so many of these kinds of movies in the past few years, I spent the whole picture looking at everything but the character the camera was focused on. And more often than not, there was something here and something there that make you want to point and shout “OOH LOOK OUT!” Other times, I had psyched myself up so much I was seeing things that weren’t really there. That’s when you know the horror movie is working. It’s not about “how good is the acting?” or “how clever is the script?” It’s about “does this movie make you uneasy and occasionally terrified?”

This movie does (though not quite as much as the first Conjuring).

3. There’s always a daytime scare

It used to be, back when horror movies were teenage slashers like Friday the 13th, that the scares were reserved for night time. Audiences learned to breathe easy whenever the sun was out and it was usually those times when the (thin) plot was advanced, to get everyone to the right positions so that they could be horrified when the sun went down.

Modern horror films have learned this trick and thus they almost always include at least one scene that is full of terror in broad daylight. In this case, the poor girl at the center of the haunting is left home alone, “apparently” too sick to go to school (this is before the mother realizes there’s something bad lurking in the house). All the classic haunted house tropes are used: The TV changes channels on its own, a chair squeaks with no one sitting in it, objects move from one spot to another seemingly on their own. It’s all very conventional—there’s even a a very effective jump-scare at the end of it—but what makes it so effective is the fact that it happens while the brightness of the mid-day shines through the windows, with not a shadow to be found for a demon to hide in. Your natural sense of safety that “light” brings is betrayed when the monster makes its most bold attack yet. It’s all very effective.

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4. Hang the lampshade.

Hanging the lampshade happens when the writer of a story realizes that the characters “would never do this in a situation like that” so the writer has the character do something that any normal person would do if faced with such a situation in real life. For example, what’s the one thing that always happens in a horror movie? People split up, and then die one by one. Naturally, when faced with a real situation, you and your friends would never split up, but it happens in movies because that’s the lazy way to get to the killing. But, occasionally someone in the movie will say “let’s not split up, that might be more dangerous” which is a perfectly sane thing to say. That’s hanging a lampshade.

In this movie there’s a scene where the demon that’s haunting the family makes its presence fully known. The beds start shaking, the kids start levitating, furniture goes flying. The whole nine yards. Now what would you if that was happening in your house? In most movies, the characters would stay and think about how they were going to “deal with” the problem. But that’s insanity. In real life you would scream, pee yourself, and then flee the house. What to do when you live in a haunted house? Don’t live there anymore!

After the chaos of the demon saying hi to the family, the next scene features the family storming out of the front door one by one. Granted, they only go across the street to sleep at the neighbor’s place, and sure enough the demon just…follows them across the street, but the fact that they did it, just made me so happy.

And then it happened again! Later, when the paranormal investigators/exorcists arrive, there is once again an experience that alerts everyone that the demon is awake and ready to play. Instead of someone saying “wait here, I’ll check” they all walk down the creepy hallway, elbow-to-elbow in a defensive posture. Sanity!

5. Some new tricks

The demon that terrorizes them takes on a few different forms in this movie but hands down the most unsettling of them was based off a child’s toy. It’s this little spinning…thing, with a stick figure that dances as it spins. It also sings a song about a “crooked man.” It’s first featured in an innocent scene where a stuttering boy plays with it in an attempt (by singing the song over and over) to cure his stammering. Even then the lyrics and the stick figure were creepy. Naturally it comes to life later in the form of a nine-foot tall terror. The real delight in it, however, was that it was filmed to resemble stop-motion animation. It was all very surreal and odd on top of really really scary. It was an effect I hadn’t seen in a horror film before and it really worked.

The other new technique was a long sequence shot out of focus. A character gets hot steam shot into his eyes thanks to a faulty pipe (with an assist by a demon) and he spends the next couple minutes stumbling about unable to see. The film switches between a first-person perspective, where everything is fuzzy and it’s impossible to make out what is a chair and what is a monster, and a third-person perspective, where we see shadows slowly approaching and hands slowly reaching out, intending to grab our hero. It’s a great sequence in the climax of the film and a nice change of pace from the conventional.

6. Ghosts possessing ghosts (SPOILER ALERT)

The movie begins with the infamous Amityville Horror and the Warren’s (Ed and Lorraine) investigation of it. We don’t actually see much and it’s all approached from the vantage point of the paranormal investigators, but we’re given a tease of the villain of the picture: A demonic creature dressed in a nun’s outfit (henceforth known as the “Twisted Sister”). We then cut to England to follow the happenings of the poor family being haunted by their demon. Nearly halfway through the movie we return to the Warrens as Lorraine has another encounter, this time in her home, with the Twisted Sister (and it’s also the movie’s best horror sequence, involving a painting, a shadow, some bubbling dread and a sudden release of terror).

For most of the picture we’re led to believe these are separate incidents, but in the end the two storylines are brought together. Since the English story (the so-called Enfield Hauntings) was called “The English Amityville” back in the day, the movie presents the theory that the same demon that plagued Amityville moved on to plague the family in Enfield. While the demon of Enfield is depicted for most of the movie as a crotchety old Brit who died in that house years prior, at the end the twist is revealed that the Twisted Sister was actually using the old British ghost to do its bidding. It’s a cool concept (demons possessing ghosts), and the movie did a good job explaining why the demon felt the need to possess the ghost (in order to block Lorraine’s psychic abilities). It was something new to the ghost-story concept, so it deserves points for originality.

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FINAL THOUGHT

It could have used a few more scares to compliment the long, sustained moments of dread, but it was very well made by a very good director who seems able to make movies like this in his sleep. There’s a lot more case files from the Warren’s to mine (and we’ve yet to see Wan give us a definitive take on the Amityville Horror), so hopefully this franchise continues to terrify movie-goers for years to come.

8/10 – It’s not the best horror movie you’ll ever see but it’s very good.

See it in theaters.

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