Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Conjuring 2

The Conjuring 2 (2016)
Dir. James Wan
Screenplay by Chad Hayes, Cary W. Hayes, James Wan, David Leslie Johnson
Starring Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe

THE CONJURING 2 is a pretty OK standard-issue modern studio horror movie, which is to say it features decent acting, good production work, solid craftsmanship, and it’s mostly about how ghosts move chairs around and stuff when no one is touching them but has a couple good parts too. For some reason it’s also 134 minutes long and made 320 million dollars worldwide. In a movie which claims to be based on two (count ‘em! two!) “real-life” hauntings, I find those facts to be the most inexplicable things anywhere in sight. It’s the second-highest-grossing horror movie of all time, behind the fucking EXORCIST. I mean, guys, this almost made as much money as THE ANGRY BIRD MOVIE, a sentence so entirely demoralizing to type that I just might cry. I don’t think I understand this country anymore, and also we sort of elected Donald Trump, this has been a bad year. THE CONJURING isn’t anywhere near as soul-crushing as the success of either ANGRY BIRDS or Trump,* but it’s not all that great either. It’s the very definition of “fine,” which is what I would have expected from Wan, who has made a venerable career out of directing perfectly OK horror movies, starting with SAW in 2004 and meandering through the completely acceptable and utterly undistinguished DEAD SILENCE, INSIDIOUS, THE CONJURING 1, and INSIDIOUS 2, before taking a break to direct the sixth highest-grossing film of all time and then returning to the genre to direct this one. Next stop: AQUAMAN. Seriously. America, I don’t get you.

THE CONJURING 2 is yet another tale of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, BATMAN VS SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE [voice cameo as “President of the United States”], and Vera Farmiga, THE DEPARTED), two “real-life” “paranormal investigators” who “document” the “Amityville Haunting” and then move on the the “Enfield Poltergeist Case” which is famous as being one of the most “well-documented” “real-life hauntings” of all time. As you can see by my condescending use of punctuation, I have my doubts about all this, for example the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Warren in any way resembled Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, and also about the absolute veracity of some of their claims. All the ghost stuff, specifically. See, it strikes me that since there’s no such thing as ghosts, probably there are also not demonic ghost conspiracies and shit. I’m not a trained logictician but I think that math works out. Normally I wouldn’t feel the need to point this out but again, Jesus, America, you’re scaring me here.

You fucking know these pricks voted for Trump.

Anyway, like the pretty decent FRIDAY THE 13th THE REMAKE from a few years back, CONJURING 2 begins with an almost completely self-contained mini-CONJURING sequel, which finds our intrepid heroes investigating the famous haunting in Amityville, NY, which was the subject of the inexplicably famous 1979 movie THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and its 2005 Ryan-Reynolds-starring remake of the same name. You’ll be very surprised to learn that they do indeed find an unspeakable evil there, which only Lorraine is able to psychically detect, because of her psychic powers, which are a totally real thing that people would have, wink wink. While she’s psychic-ing, she also has a premonition that Ed will be killed by falling onto a giant, improbable spike, so, you know, useful information I guess. Eventually. Keep away from giant spikes and all that.

With Amityville resolved, our heroes are content to go on daytime talk shows and act all unfairly persecuted when smarmy godless liberals accuse them of making it all up, humbly retorting in a wounded tone about how they are just objective scientists who happen to use Jesus and magic instead of science to solve mysteries, and remember that one time they debunked that guy? God, isn’t it just the worst when people ask for evidence to back up your outrageous claims of demonic magic? I’m sure the Warrens hate being paid piles of money to go on TV and hawk their books and stuff, but, you know, they feel obligated to do it for the greater good. Or anyway, that’s what they sadly say to each other, a single tear rolling down each cheek. Guys I don’t use the phrase “the greatest heroes since that dream I had where Jesus and Beowulf were mismatched buddy cops” very often, but I think the Warrens have earned it with the selfless willingness to constantly appear on TV and tell the American people the awful truth about ghosts and demons and stuff, like that they’re real for example, and that kind of thing.  

Meanwhile, in England (you know it’s England because they play London Calling, which they might as well just start piping in on planes landing at Heathrow by this point), strange things are happening to the Hodgson family, especially young Janet (Madison Wolfe, True Detective), much to the chagrin of working-class single mother Peggy (Frances O’Connor, A.I.). Much time is spent watching furniture move around by itself and stuff. Possibly too much. You know that eventually the Warrens are gonna show up and sort this shit out, but it actually takes quite awhile for that to happen, and for a good chunk of the middle of the film, the Hodgsons seem to take over as protagonists, while we patiently await the arrival of our heroic ghost hunters. This allows for the usual beats of an “overburdened urban family troubled by ghosts moving chairs and stuff” scenario, but not much more. When the Warrens eventually arrive on the scene, they have to solve the haunting and then realize that everyone is even more haunted than they initially thought, there is a second layer of haunting which will require some agreeably ludicrous psychic sleuthing and so forth, and yes, a giant fuck-all improbable spike does eventually show up.

There are some good parts. There’s some kind of crazy zoetrope-based “crooked man” demon that I don’t remember from the wikipedia article on the Enfield Haunting Case, which is odd because it seems so memorable, you’d think they would mention it. But I’m glad to have it in the movie, it’s a cool design and definitely the sort of chicanery only a movie with a real studio budget could pull off, which makes it something of a rarity. Mostly this is pretty standard stuff, though. Not bad, per se, just utterly lacking in imagination. Expertly executed filler. The cinematic equivalent of a great chef making you a bowl of mac and cheese. Wan isn’t exactly an auteur, but he has a very solid command of the essentials of filmmaking, meaning that even when he hauls out some pretty threadbare horror cliches --sudden musical stings to make you jump, something unexpectedly moving, a scary face appearing in a window, an innocuous song playing tinnily on a old record player, a ghostly figure zooming out of the darkness to grab you-- there’s still enough life in them to at least register, if not exactly terrify. It’s hard not to notice how heavily he leans on those old standards, though, particularly as the movie lumbers past the two hour mark. Wan’s one signature move -- creating a respectably horrific demon face and then stationing it in the near background to leer at people menacingly-- has been somewhat diluted by its centrality to both CONJURING 1 and all three INSIDIOUS sequels (and the featured demon here is functional but frustratingly generic) but it still gets the job done, at least good enough for government work.

OK not to seem like I'm obsessing about this or anything, but here's the standard scene you'd get where OMIGOD THE GHOST IS BEHIND HER! But wait, who's that lurking behind the Nun, and why does it resembled a certain President-Elect who I'd prefer not to name?

The movie only sporadically comes to life, though, and mostly when Wan gets a little creative with the filmmaking, as he does in the film’s most memorable sequences (non-”Crooked Man” edition) when he holds long, tight takes and subtly changes the lighting focus, drawing us intensely to one detail and lingering malevolently on it. Long, intense takes also work nicely with the strong performances he draws from his cast, despite the rote nature of their characterization (a sin particularly grumble-worthy in a movie with such a sprawling and unfocused runtime).

The film’s professionalism is really its defining feature, because there’s almost nothing else here you haven’t seen a million times before. Oh, it’s all executed very handily, and works about as well as you could expect this sort of thing to work on its millionth repetition. Occasionally, it’s even mildly stylish in its confident long takes and quiet moments. But its hard to get past how laboriously it struggles to deliver such conventional results. Wan is working overtime to squeeze the juice out of these old lemons, but there’s still hardly a single device or image in this movie which wasn’t in THE UNINVITED back in 1944, and the few that don’t come from that one come from the most famous parts of THE EXORCIST. And at this point, just executing the same old gags with a slick professionalism can’t help but feel a little bland, a little rote, like an uninspired cover song. I wonder, in fact, if Wan’s polished studio production actually detracts from the impact a little; we’re too aware of his presence behind the camera -- that this is a set with actors which is being carefully lit and manipulated to make it seem scary. A more primitive approach might actually help this material feel a bit more vivacious. I think I’m actually more amenable to ghost movies than many of my fellow horror fans, but I can’t help but notice that something like THE PACT traffics in many of the same tools, but gets a lot more mileage out of them with a tiny fraction of the budget and runtime. That’s not to say that every movie needs to focus on rigid realism (oh good lord, no) but if you’re going to go for slick studio artifice, I think it probably needs to be a little more fun and outlandish than CONJURING 2 is able to consistently maintain.

I guess towards the end it picks up both some energy and some appealing ludicrousness, as the Warrens uncover a ghost conspiracy that goes right up to the top, and pretty soon stuff is flying all over the place like one of those money shower boxes, if they replaced the money with crucifixes and furniture, which I for one would definitely be in favor of. It’s pretty entertaining stuff. But again, I just don’t seem able to praise this one without throwing in a qualifier. It’s a totally OK movie, with almost nothing actively bad about it, but maybe not enough good, either. So of course it made all the money on Earth, why does this even surprise me anymore? Oh, and if you’d like to be even less surprised, good news! Get ready for a spin-off focusing on the beloved character of the nun with the knockoff Marilyn Manson makeup. It’s called THE NUN. Which sounds right in line with the level of creativity here. A whole universe of Nun puns** and they decided to just go with the basics. Wouldn’t want anyone to get confused and think this was going to do something unexpected.

*Or the Disturbed cover of Sounds of Silence that I just found out about, which may very well represent the absolute nadir of all human history.


Good Kill Hunting

The Next TRUE STORY From The Case Files Of Ed And Lorraine Warren. Keep it classy, tagline guys.
I don’t think there is any specific conjuring, but there are ghosts and stuff. And it’s definitely the second one, it even says so in the tagline.
The Warrens wrote a book about this case, but the movie doesn’t seem to be adapted from it.
Ghost / Demonic Possession
I don’t know that Patrick Wilson exactly qualifies as A-list, but this is definitely a more distinguished cast then you’d usually get with this sort of thing.
I guess James Wan?
None, although there’s a real asshole tree
Ghost, demons, hauntings
Not much in the way of dolls, although there’s a creepy toy fire truck. IIRC there is a quick shot of the “Annabelle” doll from part one at the end of the movie when they go to the Warrens’ museum of formerly haunted keepsakes.
Only fools and liberals ask for evidence

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