Film review: The Conjuring 2 relies too often on gimmicks

In The Conjuring 2, things never get truly scary for Patrick Wilson, who returns as a paranormal investigator. Photo: New Line Cinema In The Conjuring 2, things never get truly scary for Patrick Wilson, who returns as a paranormal investigator. Photo: New Line Cinema

As a technically gifted and revolutionary presence in a once-stale genre that inspired both the best and the worst trends of the subsequent decade, it may be fair to say that James Wan is the Rage Against the Machine of modern horror films. As the creator of the Saw franchise (the first of which is a taut, effective mystery-thriller that’s surprisingly light on gore), Wan saw the insufferable trend of so-called “torture porn” rise as a result of his success. It may be argued that recent horror masterpieces such as It Follows met a welcoming audience thanks to his throwback love letters Insidious and The Conjuring.

However, like RATM, Wan is capable of output that, while skillfully realized, never rises above mediocrity due to a lack of focus, putting The Conjuring 2 on the level of Rage’s The Battle of Los Angeles. With the return of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), The Conjuring 2 attempts to recapture the careful blend of fact and BS that made its predecessor so fun and frightening, yet ends up leaning so heavily on plot contrivances and jump scares that it buries the story.

The Conjuring 2 recounts the supposedly factual haunting in Enfield, a borough of London, which finds a working-class family plagued by the angry spirit of the previous occupant. Back in the United States, the Warrens are on the defensive after accusations of chasing hoaxes (particularly the Amityville incident that made them famous), and are therefore wary of new cases while also being tormented themselves by a mysterious figure of a demonic nun. Even with their apprehension and Lorraine’s violent premonitions, the Warrens cannot ignore a family in need, and soon become involved in the investigation.

That’s when it’s supposed to get really scary. But it doesn’t. Jump scares are to horror what being forcefully tickled is to comedy. The creepy, mysterious atmosphere of the first Conjuring was crucial to its success, making the sequel’s reliance on this gimmick disappointing. Much of the time, these jump scares don’t even take for a very strange reason: Several times, the camera pans slowly as a character scans the room for threats, ending up in a dark corner where there may or may not be something lurking. We should see total blackness to allow our brains to imagine what sort of terror could be hiding, but instead what we see is the outline of an actor clearly waiting in a shadow for his cue. Whether this giveaway is due to a dogmatic reliance on practical effects, hasty reshoots or simply being released in an unfinished state, it successfully scares the viewer only once in the film’s 134 minutes.

There is one profoundly effective moment in the movie in which the Warrens attempt to communicate with a spirit who has possessed a young girl. Their backs are turned as the camera focuses on Ed’s face, blurring the image of the possessed girl, which morphs seamlessly into a face that is never quite clear yet is unmistakably that of an old man. It’s a beautiful moment in an otherwise forgettable film, and it captures how a haunting spirit must feel trapped by its transitory state and its limited means of communication.

Normally, such a scene would be worth the price of admission, but with The Conjuring 2 clocking in at more than two forgettable hours, I recommend waiting until it’s out on DVD and legally watching this scene on YouTube. It’s not bad enough to make us forget Wan’s impressive achievements and exciting future, but it is certainly his first official dud as a director.

The Conjuring 2 R, 132 minutes
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