Solid scares, likable cast, but Conjuring 2 is nothing new

Generically Creepy Woman in Black (Bonnie Aarons) makes her return from the Insidious series/her own eponymous Woman in Black franchise. This is probably her least scary outing, but it’s good to see she’s finally taken her vows and cleaned up her act a bit. Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

Rhiannon Saegert

If Insidious 4 The Conjuring 2 really is scarier than the original, it’s because by now, the people making these films have abandoned storytelling in favor of doing what they do best — decent scares.

The film begins with paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farminga) investigating the Amityville haunting. In-universe, the haunting was legitimate, and Lorraine Warren is particularly traumatized by a vision of her husband’s death and wants to call it quits for a while, but when a family in England is being terrorized by a violent ghost, they end up right in the center of another controversial haunting.

Writer/director/producer/”Master filmmaker” James Wan can certainly set up a good scare, but he’s a director with a limited, if reliable, box of tricks. Anyone who has seen any of the Insidious films or the first Conjuring knows exactly what to expect, right down to the monster design.

These films are aesthetically pleasing, and they’re particularly good at turning familiar domestic spaces into uncertain, threatening ones.

Each component of the James Wan checklist is here. A family is being terrorized in their own home, the children in the equation are being particularly targeted and the Warrens — or whoever — get involved, though they have reservations. Then, the initial threat appears to be subdued, and there is a period of peace used to develop the cast. Finally, there’s a twist revealing all is not well and it all ramps up to a climax revealing that the initial threat wasn’t a ghost at all, but a demon!

The demon part somehow surprises them every time. Every. Time.

The story and characters are just an excuse for the scares. That could be said for many films, but it’s especially apparent when these movies simply plug new characters and monsters into an existing framework that changes so little from movie to movie. Even Annabelle, which didn’t feature the Warrens at all and set out to make a movie about an evil doll, fell into this pattern by the end, demonic fake-out and all.

That’s not to say Conjuring 2 is bad. In fact, this movie only improves on the existing formula created by the first. It’s best experienced in a crowded theater with a jittery group of friends, a bucket of popcorn and the understanding that nothing groundbreaking is in store.  While movies like Oculus and The Babadook take a bleaker, more psychological look at horror, a fun scary movie is not a bad scary movie.

It has its weaknesses. At times, the movie abandons even its own logic. At one point, the antagonist takes the form of a demonic Crooked Man, which looks a little bit like a bargain-bin Babadook and acts a little like a British Freddy Krueger. It only appears twice in the film, adds nothing, makes no sense and isn’t very scary. It only serves to tie this movie back to Ed and Lorraine’s collection of creepy artifacts from their various cases. Even so, I found myself digging the monster’s design, and I sincerely hope it’s not too late to scrap Annabelle 2 in favor of a Crooked Man spin-off film. Then again, I’d settle for Annabelle 2 getting scrapped in favor of anything else.

The Conjuring 2 is often more of a haunted house or a carnival ride than a cohesive story, but it’s at least a well-made one, with tension, suspense, payoff and a likeable cast, which so many horror films lack.

Another returning Wan staple is the low-saturation, high but-not-high-enough contrast color scheme that creates a dull, not-quite black and white effect. Though it’s just a poor, DC-movie esque filter in most of his movies, it’s actually put to dramatic use here by highlighting the brightly lit, colorful Warren couple. It’s especially apparent in the featured image, which is set in the Warren’s home — the demon is desaturated and unlit, but the walls are vibrant and cheerful.

With an American horror film set in England, it would have been easy to reduce the child characters to a bunch of creepy British stereotypes, but they’re developed and likable. Having the children at the center of the story lets the audience relive some of the universal experiences of being a kid and getting creeped out by something as benign as your own bedroom at night. As the kids creep through their home to investigate a noise, get a glass of water or check on each other, their unease is relatable and familiar, and when something finally does goes bump after all that waiting, the audience kind of wants to hide under the covers too.

Much like the later films in the Paranormal Activity franchise, The Conjuring 2 plays to its audience more than the first, setting up the kind of when-not-if jumpscares that only get a rise out of an audience open to being scared for the fun of it. As effective as some of those scares are in the moment, nothing about them lingers or forces you to sleep with the lights on. For better or worse, this film doesn’t follow you home from the theater the way, say, It Follows did.  

The Conjuring 2 is deeply predictable to anyone who’s seen more than two Wan horror films, but it’s still enjoyably creepy and a genuinely good time.

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