When it comes to supernatural claims, I’m both a skeptic and a cynic. I’ve never experienced anything weird that can’t be explained by natural phenomenon, and I firmly believe that as widespread as claims of the supernatural are, the fact that science hasn’t found one shred of evidence to back any of them up says it all for me, but there are plenty proven examples of fraud and deception. The cynical side of me is all too ready to dismiss a claim of having seen a ghost as nothing more than attention-seeking lies. While doing some research for this review of The Conjuring 2, my position on the above remained intact.
I recall not being particularly interested in the first movie, though director James Wan has pretty good timing and an acute visual sense. I didn’t know much about Ed and Lorraine Warren at the time, so when they arrive to investigate the phenomena the movie just became a direct rip off of Poltergeist. I’ve since changed my tune a little bit, and while I still believe The Conjuring could have been less a blatant knock off of Poltergeist, it’s clear that the Warrens were a major source of the scripted events in Poltergeist too. When someone says “there are no new stories” left to tell, it’s a fallacy that writers don’t have to buy into, but worse when writers actively prove – through sheer laziness – that statement to be true.
So, fast forward to 2016 and The Conjuring 2. I actually recalled the story of “the Enfield poltergeist” from growing up in the UK. I was wasn’t yet in my teens during that era, but had already developed a great love of horror (while a child of 6, my Dad snuck me into the cinema to see The Exorcist with him. That might not have been my origin story, but it’s certainly a big element of it). While I can’t remember any specific mentions of the case in the papers at the time, I remember reading about the claims and thinking about them, but to a young mind my reactions were basic and elementary. By the time my teens came around, the story of The Enfield Poltergeist were just a part of history. Now that it’s been resurrected for a contemporary horror audience, I sought out the old story to catch up on it.
About the movie – I have two very big positives to take from it. Harkening back to my comment about Wan’s visual sense, it looks great. Very nice sense of space within many of the scenes, and some of the photography was terrific. The movie has a solid – and creative – look to it, where perhaps it didn’t actually need it. I particularly enjoyed the crane shots in this movie – it’s one of my favourite shot types, so I’m biased, but I thought they were used to nice effect here. The other positive is more tangible – the setting of 70s Britain was very well captured indeed, I thought, reminding me of the production design of High Rise. While the US basked in relative comfort and modernity, the UK in the 70s was still very much trapped in the past. I had been in many such homes like that of the Hodgsons as I grew up, gloomy, working class homes with dreary wallpaper and ancient, tasteless furniture. I know that the memories one has of childhood are always susceptible to the cloudy lens of time, but watching The Conjuring 2 seemed to bring those personal memories into sharp focus.
But that’s about it for positives. As I said, I’m not a believer in the supernatural, but I love all of that stuff. I’m drawn to it, and I appreciate great horror, but when a piece starts off by saying it’s based on a “true story”, the deck is stacked against it. No, it’s based on lies, the cynic in me says, and when researching this story, the word “lie” is the biggest element here. There are plenty of accounts of this that I won’t rehash, but here’s a link to follow if you’re curious: http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/conjuring-2-enfield-poltergeist/
Still, not that I still can’t suspend my disbelief – I didn’t go into the movie with a negative attitude, and I didn’t leave it with one for the most part. The movie is kind of all over the place, is perhaps the worst thing I can say. Making this a “Warren Movie” is a bit of a stretch considering their actual involvement, but it leads to the movie opening with a mostly pointless scene in the Amityville house that simply provides a “big bad” to connect it to the main part of the story. The demonic character is a flimsy plot device, and the fact that it looks like 90s Marilyn Manson in a nun’s habit is an unfortunate visual. The movie doesn’t need it at all, and the usage feels extremely contrived. Likewise, the movie’s running time. By beefing up the Warren’s minimal participation to lead character status, the movie is extended by at least a good half hour, and it feels like it. Act 2 in particular is flat and mostly turgid when the Warrens, played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are introduced into the Enfield storyline. It all feels clumsy and too plot-driven. The movie is most effective in the opening scenes when the Hodgson family experience the phenomena, but when the investigators come on board, the plot mostly shifts into a much lower gear and creeps along toward the inevitable setpiece-filled climax.
For me, where The Conjuring movies have gone wrong is in actually downplaying the Warrens. It’s clear that the real couple were no more than post-Exorcist charlatans, but since the movie version turns them into “real” paranormal investigators, the creative decision to keep them in the background as mostly dour and uninteresting characters is odd. Wilson and Farmiga seem to have good chemistry together and they look good together too, so I’d much prefer to have them be the focus of the stories, like a warmer kind of Sapphire and Steele with a real love of this stuff, a thrill of it, and of themselves, instead of every scene just appearing to be a chore. I want to see these guys involved in the crazy, creepy, dangerous stuff, looking at each other and saying, “Can you believe we get paid for this?!” or I want to see the Warrens as they really were: manipulating our illogical, media- and religion-based fears of the unknown into making a fast buck for themselves, before getting pulled into something that truly challenges them, and by extension, us, the audience.