JAKE’S TAKE (A Jake Sanders Review)
I will happily profess that 2013’s The Conjuring, from director James Wan, may be one of the best, if not THE BEST horror film of the last decade. Now, I will no doubt catch criticism for this opinion. Hell, I will most likely agree with all of the opinions thrown at me for such an acclaim. The largest argument against my opinion here being that much more filmic and strongly directed “horror” films have been released recently. A strong argument could be made for Robert Egger’s The Witch, which, even I can’t disagree with, that is is one of the most impeccably directed thrillers of the new millennium. However, it is not an easily marketable “horror” film for the masses, as it is more disturbing, complex, and suspenseful than it is horrific. Another film argued against The Conjuring could be The Babadook, which provides an eerie look into mental instability. Albeit a brilliant film, it isn’t necessarily terrifying, but more of a crazed look into mental issues of the modern age. Someone may also bring It Follows into the conversation, but I would theorize that that is a prime example of the slasher genre modernized for our new technological age. It’s not so much of a horror film as it is a Carpenter-esque thriller.
So why the first Conjuring, especially with such a great list of other fantastic contenders? Sure, it’s not without its flaws. Some schmaltzy family scenes and there manage to distract a bit from the final product. For me, it’s the pros that make it stand far and above the others, and make it a more acceptable horror film for any audience. James Wan does what most horror film directors cannot, which is, quite simply, the setup and payoff of a scare. We have more recently seen a horror market saturated with some of the worst films as of late. These hack films capitalize off of poorly edited, quickly produced films, packed to the brim with an abundance of jump scares. Wan is something different and more important to the genre. He is an artistic exception.
His films follow the story clichés, and hit the beats they need to, but where he veers from the path most traveled is in how he conveys what goes bump in the night, or what hides in the shadows. His direction of mise-en-scene and the scares of his films are absolutely top-notch. Even the Insidious series, which is probably his weakest efforts in the genre, critically speaking (despite being some of my guilty-pleasure works of his), capture such a meticulous attention to the detail of horror and it’s components. The Conjuring was a perfection of all of his auteur techniques that he had made up to at that point. From Saw to Dead Silence to Insidious, everything came to an artistic fruition in the first Conjuring film. It is one of the most successful horror films to date, just behind The Exorcist, and is still universally appealing to anyone looking for a haunting chill down their neck.
Now, after my clearly biased praise of James Wan, who has most recently come off of his much-larger-budget Furious 7 (which he also proved some directorial prowess by completing reshoots after the passing of the lead Paul Walker), where do I stand on his return to horror? Does The Conjuring 2 hold a flickering candle to its predecessor? Well, no. Not really. BUT, that is not to say that it doesn’t come close or try to.
The Conjuring 2 returns Ed and Lorraine Warren, real-life famed entity and paranormal investigators, to a new haunting in Enfield, England. As they delve deeper into the evils of this new home that seems to plague a young child and her family, they must also fight a demon that threatens their own lives.
The story is interesting, and much like the original, surprisingly threatening and violent to the parties involved. A serious positive aspect of Wan’s horror anthology is the typical true malevolence of the evils portrayed. They are aggressive, terrifying, and downright scary. This film is no exception. The main “villains” are reminiscent of the things we as humans have come to fear, or things that we have seen before in, say, haunted houses or horror films of yester years. But with Wan’s touch and direction of mise-en-scene, as well as his focus on setting up a scare correctly, everything still feels so new. The creaking of a door; a mysterious shadow in the darkness of a room; or a motion-sensitive camera flashing, when nothing is in the room. All beyond clichés at this point in film history, and yet: Wan still manages to make them feel fresh and new.
I want to say that Wan is at his best with direction in this film, and it definitely comes close. And despite working with a very talented cast, it still manages to fault at times when it should not. Most notably are the more emotionally dramatic scenes between the two leads, as well as the family. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga reprise their roles from the first film, and both have absolutely been better than they are in this film, more so in the first even. When the two are together and are discussing their love for each other, it completely comes off as schmaltzy and ridiculous. Moments throughout, I found myself staring in disbelief at their performances. But credit where credit is due. And that is in the child performers of the family dealing with the haunting. Namely, Madison Wolfe, who plays Janet, the child who this mysterious demon focuses all of its attention on, is a breath of fresh air in this film. She is absolutely stellar, and deserves every role that she can get in the future. Aside from her and some of the smaller supporting cast members, the performances are sub-par.
The production design, cinematography, sound design, score, and special effects are all top-notch in this film, but that cannot save it from a very typical screenplay that hits the beats, and not much else. Wan’s direction and focus on setting up a scare to their best and fullest potential help elevate everything in the film, and some of the performances are beyond excellent. But what I find most unappealing about this film is the repetition of both horror clichés, and also the auteur techniques of Wan that he had previously perfected. I felt that he sort of resorted to a safety-net in this film, which detracted it from being even better than it could have been. Sure, it is miles and miles above the more wasteful horror schlock we have seen in recent memory, but when I wanted to put this sequel up next to the original, and other horror classics of recent memory, I’m afraid that I cannot. See it if you like Wan, or if you are interested in a more maturely aesthetic horror film, but otherwise, it might disappoint rather than excite.