The Conjuring 2 is a confounding and distinctively human horror film. The picture also represents director James Wan’s best and most interestingly made horror film. The film is primarily a chronically of the Enfield Poltergeist, which to date is England’s most documented paranormal case. The picture also briefly addresses the famous Amityville Horror occurrence as a backdrop for the events to come as Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) through the course of her vision of the home sees a visage of the demon she is going to confront in the tail end of the picture.
The opening prologue is indicative of the primary virtue of the Conjuring films, which is illustrating the sheer physical and psychological anguish that the paranormal experiences have on the investigators. Most of the section is dedicated to Lorraine having first-hand experience of the massacre of the DeFeo family as she goes round their house with a shotgun and commits the murders herself with cursory glimpses of the real-life killer Ronald DeFeo, Jr in the mirror.
The series of scenes are also emblematic of the primary appeal of horror cinema which is allowing the audience member to indulge their innermost deprived desires vicariously through the killer. In some ways, it also had echoes of Michael Mann’s 1986 picture, Manhunter, which depicted the protagonist Will Graham getting into the head of the killer that he had to hunt and in essence becoming him for a sustained amount of time. The opening is simply excellent.
Equally as compelling is a scene that one can argue is James Wan’s best-directed scene in any of his films as Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) is communicating with the Poltergeist for the first time. The spirit in question will only consent to talk when everyone’s back is turned to him. For nearly five minutes Wan has a shot of Ed in the foreground and Janet (Madison Wolfe) sitting in an antiqued brown leather sofa. The latter aspect is in the background and out of focus and through the course of the tense conversation, the eleven-year-old girl transforms into the ghostly spirit that is haunting the house. The scene is sublime because of its subtly in conveying the emerging strength of the ghost while also creating a sense of paranoia that is inherent in the framing.
Notwithstanding, The Conjuring 2 also commendably shows how the primary investigation is affecting the domestic lives of the Hodgson family. Halfway through the picture, Ed states that we have to remind them that they are family. From here the film is dedicated to the Hodgsons enjoying the pleasure of music, each others company and the fact that Christmas is coming as each of the children help decorate a Yuletide tree. In some ways, this is where the film’s heart seems to be as Wan stays in this quiet mood for quite a while. Some of the best scenes of the film are featured in this peaceful section, two of which stand out because of their introspective nature.
The first of which is Janet reassuring her mother that in earlier in the film she was not smoking a cigarette and was only holding it to look cool. The second features Lorraine Warren questioning the motives of Maurice Grosse for getting involved in the investigation. Groose is played with quiet conviction by Simon McBurney. The character responds to Lorraine with a touching point that the existence of the supernatural for him might be a ways and means for him to communicate with his dead daughter and assure himself that she is okay.
Nevertheless, the bewildering central problem of The Conjuring 2 comes from its underlying absurdity which strips the film of any real horror and ultimately clashes with the documented realism aesthetic that permeates the film. Some of James Wan’s previous horror films, particularly thinking of the Insidious picture played like carefully crafted horror house attractions where the absurdity felt more at home because they acted as a release for the audience.
In The Conjuring 2, they particularly feel out of place because the film is dealing with real emotional and psychological trauma of the events so the absurdity feels like an odd addition to this established premise. For example, the manifestation of the spirit of the Enfield residence at one point in the picture takes on the form of a tall man with a pink hat that dances around like a marionette. The appearance and scene in question felt like a moment out of Evil Dead 2 but lacked any of the sheer horrific comedy that resided in the Sam Raimi sequel.
At worst the absurdity feels like a warm reassurance, which stops the film from becoming a transcendent horror film that truly gets under one’s skin. The moment that illustrates this best is an extended sequence where Lorraine has a premonition of her husband dying at the hands of a demon she saw in the prologue. Earlier in the film, Ed Warren has a nightmare which results in him waking up and painting the creature that he saw while he was asleep. It turns out that he sketches the demon that Lorraine had seen. The painting is then placed centrally in the basement of their house.
In the midst of her vision, Lorraine is led down to the cellar by the demon. Soon after she turns around and thinks it is there due to the positioning of the painting. The demon then appears behind the painting and proceeds to go into it and lunge at Lorraine while still being trapped in the confines of the painted canvas. At this moment, the image of the demon looks utterly ridiculous and feels like the director is making a potentially terrifying image into something palatable. Plus it seems like a silly sticking to realism, particularly when one reflects on the fact that the premonition is taking place in the midst of a dream that Lorraine is having.
The moment also reminded me of a quote from author Bret Easton Ellis that speaks to a widespread issue that he thinks exists within contemporary horror cinema, and I think equally applies to The Conjuring 2. In an interview with Insidious producer Jason Blum, he contends that “The scariest horror movies are random. There is no explanation as to why the events occurred. Logic isn’t scary. Rules aren’t scary. Back stories isn’t scary. Explanation ruins horror.”
At the heart of The Conjuring 2 is an attempt to explain the demon’s actions which result in a set-up for a plot point in the third act and this lessens the horror through the course of the film. Additionally, it carries with it plot points that are not remarked upon again, which makes one wonder they were introduced in the first place. The cataclysmic screenplay problems emerge from the demon going to great lengths to tell Lorraine that it will confront and kill her husband in England at the end of the film. The astoundingly silly moment called to mind the Exorcist which the sequel feels like it is referencing in many ways. In the 1973 picture, a future conflict between Father Merrin and Pzuzu is effectively set up in one shot as the priest looks up at the statue of the demon in question. In comparing both moments, one gets the sense that the Conjuring 2’s most fundamental problem is in not trusting its audience.