The Conjuring felt like a breath of fresh air in 2013. Although similarly plotted to a glut of other ghost films and old-fashioned to the point of being simple, it had energy, style and jump-scares as huge as the box office receipts, perpetuating the idea that director James Wan had a golden touch. Three years and a spin-off later, its official sequel (also helmed by Wan) continues to plunder the case files of celebrated paranormal experts Ed and Lorraine Warren (played again by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), albeit to far less exciting effect.
After a confusing and unnecessary prologue in the Amityville house, the action cuts to Enfield in 1977, where the inhabitants of a damp and dingy – yet abnormally spacious – council house are being troubled by a poltergeist whose aim is to “hear them scream”. Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor with a Dick Van Dyke accent) is a long-suffering single mum with four kids who’ve been recently abandoned by their deadbeat dad. With no money to even buy biscuits, the last thing she needs to deal with is the ghost of a nasty old man who likes moving her furniture in an inconsiderate manner (more often than not, it breaks before reaching its destination) and possessing her youngest daughter Janet. The police, a group of psychical researchers and even some TV reporters all take a look inside the Hodgson house and raise the haunting’s profile, so eventually the church calls in the Warrens in from America to stay at the house and find out if the it’s real or not…
The Enfield Poltergeist is, of course, a well-documented case that’s already had its share of books, documentaries and films written about it (including, loosely, Stephen Volk’s immaculate Ghostwatch). It is widely believed to be a hoax but this is a studio horror picture so obviously it’s going to play fast and loose with the truth and opt for a supernatural explanation. Fine in theory but it’s a shame that the one it goes for is so flavourless because it actually winds up being somehow less interesting than the real story. Despite a noisy torrent of house-trashing visual FX it’s an indulgent, overlong half-plot with very little meat on its bones.
While the first film was hardly subtle, it knew where to draw a line to keep its scares the right side of effective. This one, however, overplays everything and not in a fun audacious way either. It just takes its good ideas and drives them off a cliff, time and time again. For example, the Crooked Man zoetrope (this film’s obligatory yet inexplicable Victorian-style toy) and the dog bell both seem like strong setups for the kind of inventive scares The Conjuring pulled off so well but the payoff is bewildering; a Burton-esque CGI dogman hybrid in a candy striped suit that stomps all over the screen like it’s escaped from Night At The Museum.
Likewise, the characterisation takes a similar trajectory. There’s a scene where Ed sings an Elvis song with the Hodgsons to bring everyone together and, when it starts, it’s a rare moment of levity; warm, funny and tender. Then it’s smothered with a string section that swells and swells until any emotion is lost beneath the heavy-handed soundtrack schmaltz. Joseph Bishara’s score is irrationally bombastic throughout in fact, and the use of use of contemporary (or thereabouts!) music is so hysterically on-the-nose it’s hard not to laugh. There is an opening montage of the local tourist sights set to The Clash’s London Calling and then – with just a few cor blimeys in between – it cuts straight to a bus stop, while playing Bus Stop by The Hollies, in case we still weren’t sure we were in Britain.
The worst offence, however, is the runtime. 133 minutes! Only the most ambitious genre films should dare to go over 90 and a simple one like this, focused as it is on scares, finds it impossible to sustain that much tension. Far too many of the shocks fall flat. At their best, the long takes of characters staring into darkness channel our universal fears of being alone in the house at night, uncertain of what we’ve just seen or heard. At their worst, it’s literally just someone staring into space. I’d estimate there’s somewhere in the region of 40 minutes worth of staring into space in this film.
Ultimately, between the first Conjuring, the Annabelle film and three Insidious chapters (also Wan-directed or produced), this format seems exhausted. There’s nothing here we’ve not seen done before and better. From the possessed kids to the pale-faced demons to the creepy use of a corny old vaudeville tune, what once was fresh now feels stock and predictable. Even the way that Lorraine is investigating one haunting (the Enfield Poltergeist) while having ominous visions of a different one (some kind of demon nun that looks like Marilyn Manson) is exactly what happens with Lin Shaye’s character in Insidious 3. I hate to make the obvious gag but if there’s going to be another Conjuring, it may be time they learned a few new tricks…
The Conjuring 2 is in UK cinemas now.
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