Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Review: The Conjuring 2 (2016)

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

Rated R for terror and horror violence

Score: 4 out of 5

Before I get into this review proper, let me make one thing perfectly clear: the real-life Enfield Poltergeist case, which this movie is based on, is absolute fucking horseshit. And proven horseshit, at that. Often referred to as "the British Amityville", a reputation that this film trades on, it is known as one of the most well-documented cases of paranormal activity in history. Unfortunately, this means that it's well-documented that the case is a hoax. (Something it shares with Amityville, incidentally.) The young siblings Janet and Johnny Hodgson essentially played a great many paranormal investigators, and the British tabloid press, for fools, with highlights including: making noises in their bedroom (when nobody was looking) that they claimed were ghosts, asking the investigators to turn around and then pelting them with pillows and Lego bricks while claiming that ghosts did it, imitating a demonic voice straight out of The Exorcist, jumping on a bed while claiming that they were being levitated after a still photo camera was installed in their bedroom, and (my favorite) moving a small metal gas heater in their bedroom, calling in the investigators, and telling them that ghosts moved it, causing the credulous investigators to report "a heavy fireplace ripped from the wall by unseen forces." They were eventually caught -- on multiple occasions -- and even confessed to making stuff up, something that hasn't stopped defenders from claiming "well, they couldn't have made it all up, could they?" Among their defenders are Ed and Lorraine Warren, a pair of famed paranormal investigators and demonologists who I already offered my two cents on in my review of the first Conjuring movie. Not only is their track record alone enough to make me skeptical, they also played only a minor role in investigating the case; in reality, it was led by British investigators Guy Lyon Playfair and Maurice Grosse, something that didn't stop the Warrens from cashing in.

That said...

The Conjuring 2, despite all its baggage, is an absolutely terrifying movie. The Warrens may be hucksters, but they are damn good hucksters who know how to spin a scary story, and director James Wan knows how to bring that story to the screen by combining old-school cinema chills with modern horror thrills. He's helped by a great cast and writing that's a cut above the norm for the genre, and while there's little that's all that original about this, such that you can see where this is going early on, it's still made well enough that it scared me out of my seat. At two hours and fourteen minutes, it's a long movie by any measure, especially for a horror flick, but instead of feeling bloated, it felt like a slow burn that was constantly building up to something horrifying, especially as the stakes got ratcheted up constantly as the film went on. There are almost no false jump scares in sight; when shit gets real, it gets real, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. This is an easy recommendation for anybody who wants to get scared.

The film starts with the presumption that there was something at the center of the Enfield Poltergeist case, making the allegations of fraud a major driving force in the plot. If this were a documentary, I'd be livid about how it handles this part of the story, but in this case, knowing the fakery involved in real life actually helped me appreciate this film more, even if I will admit that it causes a number of problems for the story. I knew right away that this film was gonna be embellishing a lot of the details, so the moment I saw the "based on a true story" disclaimer at the start of the film, I brushed it off as modern-day William Castle-esque hype, much like the deliberately false "true story" disclaimer at the beginning of Fargo. After that, the question of what's real or fake underpins a lot of the spooky business going down, as the Warrens and company try to figure out just what the Hodgsons are making up. I wish the film had been more daring in giving us reasons to question the credibility of the Hodgsons, having more early scenes that could've been chalked up to mundane occurrences turned into ghosts by an overactive imagination -- or things that someone could've deliberately made up. The film's main problem is that it goes big early, showing us things that absolutely cannot be explained by the mundane, such as large dressers moving by themselves. After all, you can't have a supernatural horror movie if the ghosts aren't real. Ultimately, though, without spoiling anything, many of the problems I had with the plot vanished once the film finally tackled the proof that the Hodgsons were hoaxers. Without spoiling anything, it not only helped seriously elevate the villain's menace, but it answered a lot of the questions I had about the logic of showing too much too early. If someone tried to use the explanation this film went for in real life, it would be rightly seen as a cop-out, but this film finds a way to make it work.

And a big part of that is down to the work of director James Wan. Much like with the first film, he doesn't just make this one look like a vintage '70s horror flick, he successfully taps into the same suspense that made many of those classics work so well. He's great when it comes to creating the impression that there's something lurking just outside the frame or in that shadowy corner that's waiting to pounce, and he does not hesitate to have it actually come out and throw down. Instead of resting on the usual formula of "cut the sound for ten seconds, then unleash hell", Wan constantly finds new things to throw at us and new ways to throw them. Everything and the kitchen sink gets used for scares, from televisions to old toys, and while the film is occasionally punctuated by twisted special effects, more often than not the tricks used are old-school, such that the really freaky stuff stands out that much more.

Wan maintains just as good a handle on his cast, led by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine Warren. I have little respect for the real Warrens, but the movie Warrens are great characters, battling crises of faith and being haunted by their own demons that they've acquired through their years investigating such. Wilson and Farmiga are great as Ed and Lorraine, working together as a convincing married couple and also showing a ton of backbone when fighting the things that go bump in the night. It could at times get ridiculous how badass Ed especially was portrayed as being, but it played into the fantastical nature of this film remarkably well. The rest of the cast also does good work, led by Simon McBurney as the credulous tabloid hack Maurice Grosse (who seems to be a composite of the real Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair) who only sees the surface hauntings without digging any deeper, as well as Frances O'Connor as the Hodgson kids' mother and Franka Potente as the skeptic Anita Gregory. Special props must, however, go to young Madison Wolfe as Janet, the seeming target of the hauntings. For such a young actor, her performance is excellent, playing well at being both afraid of the forces haunting her and scary once they start taking control of her. She's definitely one to watch in the coming years.

The Bottom Line:

Take it as the pure fantasy that it is rather than anything close to an honest account, and you'll find The Conjuring 2 to be a remarkable horror film that easily matches the original, and in some ways even tops it. It's not that original, and there are places where a bit more nuance could've served the story better, but it's still one that you should go see.

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