The place that the horror genre has arrived at in the modern era is a peculiar one. The 80s and 90s were pretty much defined by the slasher flick. Then in 1999, The Blair Witch Project set the stage for found footage films. Things took a sharp left turn with James Wan’s Saw in 2004, before arriving where it is today: In a strange state of flux. Every once in awhile we’ll see an amazingly eery and suspenseful master stroke, in the mold of The Babadook or It Follows. Peppered in between releases like this are just-good-enough ghost stories like The Conjuring, and most recently, The Conjuring 2.
When the first Conjuring released in 2013 (incidentally, also directed by James Wan), it saw a return to old-school horror devices, made new again by modern special effects, skilled cinematography, and an eye for nuance. It also made Warner Bros. a boatload of cash at the box office, which of course immediately fast-tracked it for franchising. What we have as a result is The Conjuring 2: A horror film that has all the makings of a truly great entry in the genre, weighed down by monumental clutter.
To clarify, Wan’s sequel has all the pieces in place. The design for all of the various ghosts and demons is stunning. The use of light and camera angles demonstrates a focus on craft over flash. But it’s in the film’s repetition and content that things really break down. We even see recycled devices from the first Conjuring brought back in a way that hopes the audience won’t remember they were already used.
Those recycled scare tactics are staples of the horror genre. We see Vera Farmiga, playing Lorraine Warren, do the “look in a mirror, turn away, and turn back to see something terrifying” routine, something she does almost beat-for-beat in both The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2. There’s even a creepy kid’s toy with an eery lullaby used as a device for summoning a ghost, also utilized in both films.
More than any of this, Wan leans hard into the jump scare, a device that’s quickly become the bane of modern horror’s existence. There’s certainly value to be had in it when used in the right place. But for The Conjuring 2, it’s used as a crutch rather than a helpful device, and it’s downright exhausting. At this point, the trained moviegoer knows exactly when it’s happening. The music cuts out, a character is apprehensively peering down a darkened corridor, and a loud screech or thump plays over the soundtrack, punctuated by the brief appearance of something terrifying. And then it’s over, the board resets, and in the case of The Conjuring 2, it happens over and over again.
The real shame of this is that in smaller doses, Wan’s use of jump scares would have been nearly perfect. In a vacuum, each one is suitably terrifying, and every time it’s done, it builds tension and release beautifully. It’s the collective sum of the parts, though, that really hinders things. When the core of your film’s tone is “really loud things suddenly jumping out,” you backseat other important horror elements like characterization and story-building.
You could argue that expecting The Conjuring 2 to meet the bar of prestige horror is unreasonable, especially for what many consider to be the premiere blockbuster franchise of the genre. You have to appeal to a wide audience at the box office, and the best way to do that is to make your film a grab-bag of time-honored tropes (which The Conjuring 2 does to a tee). The mythology of the “based on a true story” motif pushed by the presence of real-life ghostbusters Ed and Lorraine Warren definitely stokes those flames, but really it just functions as another addition to the mishmash of horror elements.
What’s upsetting about all this is that The Conjuring 2 has all the trappings of a great movie. The basic story follows a family whose spirit is slowly being broken by a malicious ghost, whose path slowly but surely intertwines with that of the Warrens. There are some truly unsettling moments scattered throughout, and the subtle twist that hits at the climax of the movie makes for a satisfying “ah ha!” Unfortunately, all that is drowned out by Wan’s insistence on the jump scare as his primary device for evoking fear.
This bring us to the question of whether or not it’s a movie worth seeing. It’s certainly a film with a fair share of entertainment value, and exists a level above the subpar offerings that have littered the genre in recent years. With measured expectations, odds are you’ll have a perfectly good experience forking over $13 on a weekend. For better or worse, this is what mainstream horror has become (at least until the next batch of Babadooks take over).
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