Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Conjuring 2

3/4

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Madison Wolfe, Frances O'Connor, Simon McBurney, Franka Potente

Rated R for Terror and Horror Violence

There's nothing like being in the hands of a strong, confident director.  Especially in the horror genre, where usually, at best, nervous or slacking directors throw special effects, cheap shocks or gore at the screen, or worse, fail to tell a coherent story.  Not so with James Wan.  Ever since his film "Saw" was unleashed on the public in 2003, the young Australian (but born in Malaysia) director has had a remarkable success behind the camera in a genre where effective entries are few.  "Saw" was a tense and grisly low-budget chiller while "Insidious" remains one of the most terrifying movies I've ever seen.  "The Conjuring" wasn't as scary per se, but it showed real technique and skill.  "The Conjuring 2" continues in this tradition, albeit with different strengths and weaknesses.

After the events in the first film, Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Farmiga) are still casting out demons from people in need.  After she receives a disturbing vision when dealing with the Amityville case, Lorraine insists that they take a break.  Meanwhile in England, Peggy Hodgson (O'Connor) is dealing with a supernatural crisis.  Her family, especially her daughter Janet (Wolfe), is being harassed by the spirit of a very pissed off old man.  Despite reservations, Ed and Lorraine head across the Atlantic to investigate.

The good news is that "The Conjuring 2" works.  It's intense, it's visceral, it's scary.  In some ways, it's scarier than the first one (it certainly has a creepier-looking specter.  Two, actually).  You want scares?  You got 'em.  You want jump scenes?  They're here.  You want some gratuitous nudity and gore?  Sorry, Wan (despite being a member of the Splat Pack) doesn't include these because he's smart enough to know that they'll cheapen the film.  If you want those, I suggest you see "Hatchet" instead.

Like Scott Derrickson ("Sinister") and Ti West ("The Innkeepers"), James Wan understands the mechanics of creating scares.  The performances are strong and the atmosphere is dark and gloomy without being incomprehensible.  He also understands that long takes increase the tension far more than quick cuts or shaking the camera.  Done well in different movies, those techniques can work, but not in a ghost story, where escalating tension needs to stir in its own juices.  And everyone knows how crucial sudden silence is in a horror film.  There's nothing scarier than a director building up to something scary only to have the sound cut out.  Most importantly, Wan knows that less is more.  He resists the common trap of throwing gobs of special effects at the screen.  He uses some, but seldomly and always for a reason.  Atmosphere is scary; CGI is not (or at leaste not often).

Unfortunately, the script is on the weak side.  Wan has bitten off more than he can chew.  In addition to the family of five, he has a skeptic (Potente) and a grieving father who needs to believe in the supernatural (McBurney).  Both give good performances, but they're wasted.  The film has four credited screenwriters, three of whom receive a "story by" credit.  Such news is rarely a good sign.  The decision to open with the Amityville incident is also a mistake, since it's universally known to be a hoax (Wan tries to explain this away, but the truth is so well known that it doesn't work).

Fortunately, both the leads from the original have returned.  Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson easily slide back into their characters and have no trouble replicating the chemistry that gave the original a lot of its punch.  What's more, they work hard to create real characters.  They play their characters seriously, enhancing the film's credibility.  For example, Vera Farmiga plays Lorraine as someone who knows what's going on.  Demons and poltergeists still scare the hell out of her, but she knows what she's dealing with, which makes her different than your average scream queen (although she possesses a great set of lungs...is there anything that she can't do?).  Likewise, Wilson's low-key charm adds a beacon of light to the proceedings, allowing us a small measure of comfort during the scares.  Not to mention a chance to breathe.  And Madison Wolfe has no problem playing the role of a scared little girl who is the victim of supernatural torture.

With "The Conjuring 2," you get what you paid for.  It's smart, visceral and unsettling.  It's not up to the level of "Insidious," nor is it as genuinely terrifying as "Sinister," but you definitely get more than enough scares for your buck to get a recommendation from me.  Unless you don't like scary movies, in which case you should probably be watching something else.

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