Wednesday, June 8, 2016

'The Conjuring 2' (2016) Movie Review

Okay, we get it, James Wan, your last movie made a billion-plus dollars and your next one probably will, too. You can do anything you want. And I dig that what you want to do is make creepy-as-shit, mid-budget horror movies. That’s an impulse I can certainly get behind 110%. And you’re good at it, you understand the genre like few other filmmakers working right now. As you become a massive blockbuster director, please feel free to continue dabbling in horror from time to time. But damn, dude, why did TheConjuring 2 need to be 133 minutes long?

I’m not saying The Conjuring 2 is bad; not at all, I quite enjoyed it. Wan takes continually escalating tension, sprinkles in nice jump scares, and the end result is a fun popcorn horror flick that provides a few jolts, a handful of screams, and nervous, relieved, after-the-fact laughter. With all the superheroes and massive epics pounding into theaters, this is a strong bit of counterprogramming. (And it’s a damn sight better than the prequel, Annabelle.) But it is so damn long, like almost The Shining long. Hidden in here is tight, razor-sharp hour-forty-five, hour-fifty-minute horror joint, but it could use some excavation to remove the excess clutter.

As with 2013’s The Conjuring, the strength here is the atmosphere. Once again, Wan employs elements of haunted house and possession narratives to tell a “true” story. The tale picks up with real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorrain Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) in the wake of their most famous case, Amityville (I’m glad they skipped that event, there have been enough Amityville movies for one lifetime). Haunted by what she experienced, specifically premonitions of Ed’s grisly death, Lorraine makes them take a step back from their work. But when a young girl in London is tormented and possessed by a malevolent force, the duo is called out of retirement. Think of it as the horror version of, “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.” This leads to the Warren’s other most notorious case, the Enfield Poltergeist.

The Conjuring 2 starts with these dual threads, the Warrens and the British family, the Hodgsons—mother Peggy (Frances O’Connor), and kids Margaret (Lauren Esposito), Billy (Benjamin Haigh), Johnny (Patrick McAuley), and Janet (Madison Wolfe). It’s Janet who takes the brunt of the spectral ire, being tortured and used like a puppet for evil forces. To be honest, I forgot Johnny was in the movie for a long stretch; he only exists because there’s a real-world counterpart and serves no larger purpose.

On their own, these two storylines are fine. Wilson and Farmiga give Ed and Lorraine a charming, authentic, lived-in feel. Wolfe is strong as both the terrified little girl and mouthpiece for a sinister spirit—additionally impressive given her age. O’Connor isn’t much more than a harried mother dealing with forces she doesn’t understand, but she’s precisely what that role needs, and a handful of supporting players like Franka Potente and Simon McBurney aren’t given much to do. As things get worse and worse, the dread and apprehension build, though this is hampered by bouncing back and forth between arcs too often.

The Conjuring 2 simply takes too long to move forward. Wan spends quite a while establishing how deeply in love Ed and Lorraine are. That’s fine, and adds to the characterization, but there are scenes that do this job just as well, better actually, later on. And just when the plot is poised to plow ahead across the pond, there’s yet another spooky scene in the house on Green Street—at some point they become redundant. The movie spins its wheels far too long until the two storylines finally collide. By the time the Warrens and the Hodgsons do finally come together, the narrative rehashes many of these beats, yet it still never creates the same emotional connection as the last time out.

Though The Conjuring 2 maintains a similar low-budget throwback aesthetic as the previous film, given Wan’s recent success, he obviously has more resources to play with. He employs long takes that swoop through hallways and around characters, and the camera rarely stops moving, pushing, and pulling. Along with cinematographer Don Burgess, Wan uses depth of field with fantastic results—always watch the background and the shadows—and there are clues scattered throughout the sets and locations.

While these new toys are often employed to great effect—one scene in particular, one long shot focused on Ed, where a possessed, out-of-focus Janet morphs from little girl to haggard old man and back, is remarkable and unsettling—there are also times when it goes overboard. Spooks and specters abound, but one in particular looks like a CGI leftover from Nightmare Before Christmas, which is both distracting and at odds with the more grounded, practical look and feel of the rest of the phantoms.

Like its predecessor, The Conjuring 2 doesn’t blaze any new trails, but it does make excellent use—or overuse as the case may be—of what it has. Though he’s straying into blockbuster territory, James Wan is a horror enthusiast at heart, and that shines through once again. He has a slick array of tried and true genre tools—spectral figures in the corner, things bumping in the night, children singing—and while there’s nothing quite on the level of the first film, and nothing terribly unexpected, this is a sturdy, enjoyable, if overlong, supernatural horror romp. [Grade: B]

No comments: