For every statement written about the unoriginality of The Conjuring 2’s beats, there is one singular, creaky step to be signposted that has led us to the best American horror movie of the year thus far. One is 70s horror in all its thematic richness: not simply the dimly-lit rooms, but the Catholicism and the enormous melancholia for a lost family. Another is the zeitgeist of the jump scare. Another series of steps are all the plot contrivances obliged to the Saw series that Wan birthed over a decade ago, those contrivances that have made contemporary horror movies some of the most asinine whodunits in cinematic history. And a final step should be given to the digital camera and all the impossible movements and edits it can deliver. The so-called unoriginality of The Conjuring 2 does not depreciate the singularity of our viewing experience, as no other time period could have given the same sensations.
It’s the odd combination of the first and third steps that is the most shaky. The Conjuring took a case of the Amityville ghost hunters before their most famous one, and our second film takes place after it. We find this out with a recreation of the events of The Amityville Horror. The beginning also serves as the sequel’s “Annabelle” sequence insomuch as it spookily re-introduces our ghost hunters before we pay (almost) exclusive attention to the poltergeist of Enfield, England. Given the atrociousness of the Annabelle spinoff, and general concerns about over-serialization, there is much to worry about in this act of worldbuilding. The Conjuring 2 haplessly invents a demonological ur-structure it can only support by distracting us from the film at hand. Miraculously, it doesn’t fall into the same pitfalls as the sequels (and third act) of Insidious because it quite pins this worldbuilding on the tail of its characters. It shares a desire with The Exorcist to show the spiritual exhaustion of its characters at the face of unnamed evil. Vera Farmiga looks exasperated from the first frame onward and she’s supposed to be the one saving the day. Patrick Wilson exudes the false confidence of someone who can’t bear to see his stronger-willed wife go through another breakdown. These two strong performances, accompanied by the precocious turns of Madison Wolfe, give the entire narrative unsuspected emotional depth. Repetition isn’t even an issue here; even as the film achieves its goal of laboring us with relentless dread, a number of character beats act through many stages of grief. We see hope, suspicion, and fear in their eyes.
The great news is that the excretable parts of the film’s outrageous 133 minute runtime all fall on the top half. The final, laughably bad piece of exposition is a montage that delivers us straight into late 70s London to the tune of “London, Calling” for about 30 seconds, as if it knew we all had better things to do that go for a bunch of low-budget period stereotypes. The introduction of the house instead opts for a Fincheresque digital tracking tour-de-force. We spend most of the film in this working class house - a rare treat for a genre mostly stuck in rural middle-class demi-mansions. Wan clearly knows how to make the space work with a variety of lighting options, camera movements, and blocking acrobatics that can surprise. That we’ve seen some of these tricks in his other films doesn’t distract from the unsettlingly mobile camera in some of these early scenes. I’m still drawn to the first night of scares for the Hodgson family, which works so well because seems like it will never end. By alternating between the boys and the girls’ experiences, Wan lets the scares brood for a good 20 minutes. His preferred method in this movie consists of a long take in a dark room or hallway, filmed with an indeterminate depth of field. We remember the agonizing stillness of these frames moreso than the ghost who makes himself partially known at the end of a sequence.
What is admirable about The Conjuring 2 lasts in the memory much longer that what could have been better. It is difficult to argue that, zeitgeist and all, this isn’t the perfect version of itself. All the aforementioned elements that make up this film are relatively balanced, from beginning to end - a character beat never feels egregious, nor does a long-take scare sequence. If we can keep replicating the giddy joy that this film, in being so confident and creative, produces, then maybe we do have a horror renaissance in (surprise!) mainstream cinema.