Three years ago, I wracked my brain trying to figure out why James Wan’s The Conjuring, a haunted house movie, worked in spite of being constructed almost entirely from clichés and contrivances. I never really came up with anything. Now, thinking about Wan’s The Conjuring 2, which also works and is yet again constructed almost entirely from clichés and contrivances, the answer couldn’t be any clearer. These films work because they have nothing to prove. Everyone knows what goes into haunted house movies, and the filmmakers know that we know, and in releasing the film with this knowledge, they are in effect saying to audiences, “This is how it is. Take it or leave it.”
I think the same thought process goes into the casting. It’s not so much about making the characters “realistic” or “believable” as it is about being aware that characters in movies like this always have very specific roles to play, so there’s really no point in the actors digging especially deep or relying on overly complicated techniques. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who return as real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, not only seem perfectly comfortable but also were wise to play their roles straightforwardly, especially in a genre that lends itself so easily – too easily, in many cases – to either overt overacting or lazy, unmotivated approaches to character development.
The fact that the Warrens have always been the subject of much scrutiny and criticism – especially in regards to their most famous investigation, which came to be known as The Amityville Horror – probably made dramatizing them for film a challenge. My feeling is that the writers for both films, Chad and Carey Hayes, chose not to make a case for either their authenticity or their lack of credibility; instead, they simply treated them as characters in a supernatural horror movie. If that was the case, then it was certainly the best approach. We shouldn’t be made to believe or disbelieve what we’re watching. We should simply sit back and let ourselves be scared.
The Conjuring 2, much like its predecessor, makes that all too easy. Wan has been nothing if not adept in creating the right atmosphere for horror movies, even the ones that were less successful – the muted colors, the utilization of shadows, the slow buildups that create tension and the popout scares that release it. He even goes with what works narratively, not just in his films but in countless other movies like his own – the house with the less-than-pleasant backstory, the actions of past tenants affecting the events plaguing current tenants, and yes, even the child who haplessly becomes a conduit for some dark force that wants everyone to suffer and/or die.
In the film, which takes place in December of 1977 and is also said to be inspired by true events, the Warrens investigate bouts of paranormal activity in a council house in Enfield, England. The family that lives there, the Hodgsons, experience just about everything we’ve come to expect, including phantom knocks at the door, furniture being thrashed around, and doors slamming shut and locking up all by themselves. The middle child, a daughter named Janet (Madison Wolfe), is periodically possessed by the malevolent spirit of an old man who once lived there, who calls himself Bill Wilkins. Lorraine, shaken for reasons I won’t reveal, begins to fear that this haunting is somehow related to an encounter she had in the Amityville house with a very demonic-looking nun – the same nun that Ed has been painting.
The most surprising thing about The Conjuring 2, which is saying something given how predictable it is, is that it examines the love between Ed and Lorraine in way that isn’t unintentionally, or even intentionally, funny. The point wasn’t to mock or pay homage to the ways in which ghost movies can sometimes go spectacularly wrong; rather, it was to actually develop the Warrens as characters, to get us to invest in them in spite of a genre that generally doesn’t encourage investment. This development can also be seen with the Hodgsons, who really do seem like a functional, loving family unit. Even the way they interact with the Warrens shows a genuine effort being made. This is good, because only by finding the characters engaging can the scares actually be scary. And they are.