Thoughts On: The Conjuring 2
Ed and Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigators, confront the infamous Enfield hauntings.
This is a good film. It has quite a few faults, but it is a good film nonetheless. More than this, The Conjuring 2 is an interesting example of a high-end modern horror film. The faults in the narrative then, to me, speak to a wider concept of the modern horror film and essentially what it tries to be and is, in some ways, falling short of doing. To explore this, we’ll look at the film in respect to direction and writing. James Wan has constructed from a pretty mediocre script a captivating cinematic experience. He does this through complex camera operation and choreography, building enthralling, quite flashy shots/sequences. This really helps to sell the story in the confines of the home whilst injecting tension with an interesting blend of POV and lingering handheld shots. This kind of direction adds fluidity to the narrative, moving the story along with great pace whilst also implying a ghostly presence. Such a technique is found a lot in paranormal films – the best example being The Shining. However, Wan’s coverage of many static scenes is cluttered, his use of cinematic language not incredibly articulate. What this means is that we get a lot of unnecessary angle changes, or subtle camera movement, that neither says much about the scene, action or characters, or really adds to the atmosphere. By far, the most impressive and poignantly directed sequence is near the centre with an important figure out of focus. This scene works so well because the camera is static, it allows the tension of the scene to build naturally, the eye to edit the sequence and so the audience to participate in an immersive moment. In juxtaposition to more complex scenes, Wan’s excess of coverage becomes more apparent. This, in short, means the fluid long shots, the reactive hand held sequences and static scenes work best for the tension. Meanwhile, the character scenes are a little jumbled with the excess of angles, camera movement and editing – which falsely implies a narrative movement that is not there. However, on the grounds of filmic language, we see Wan’s greatest downfall in how he directs the emotional scenes. Segments near the end where dire moments of character need to be embellished do not hit well. This is because the camera, especially in the final sequence, is far too preoccupied with action. Almost all action throughout the film is shot ok, but, if we were to be hyper-critical, it’d be easily labelled as sub-standard. All action is very hyperbolic – and this is a problem rooted in the script–but we’ll come back to that. The action sequences simply feel out of place, they shift the tone of the movie, the exuberant camera movement being dragged down from a device to control atmosphere and the spatial relation of character and location to a cliched attempt to add flash to mediocre action set-pieces. The final result of the badly captured action juxtaposed with the flat attempts to express crucial emotional moments of character is the juddering final act.
It’s seeing these faults in direction that it should become all the more clearer that we’re talking about high-end modern horrors – genre films with big budgets and considerable talent behind them. Because The Conjuring 2 is part of a growing series of films, it’s essentially a blockbuster. This leaves it reflecting many of the tropes/expectations of the time. However, this isn’t criticism in itself as the tropes reflect a communication between audience and filmmaker with this film holding certain elements in response to the jarring cliches of many terrible horror films. What we’re then talking about is the aversion from jump scares – though the odd one or two are snuck in. We’re also talking about a self-awareness of the film, the appeal to sequels, paranormal activity, religion and so on. The means of inciting horror in this film, under the umbrella of the jump scare, has clear attempts to be original. Through this we are seeing a reprisal(ish) of surrealism – something seen in everything from thrillers to horrors to comic book movies. This gives us some complex editing sequences and a handful of powerful images (discluding the opening – which is bad). However, the appeal to the paranormal in The Conjuring, as in many modern horrors, has almost every single film blend into one indistinct mesh. Watching The Conjuring 2, I was left incapable of deciphering what I was watching from the average horror story. There’s families, dogs, friends, belief, disbelief, floating people and dead faces – little more. This sticks out despite the attempt to stay away from cliches and boring direction because of the writing. The strongest parts of the script are of character – the only original thing it really has going for it. The plot itself is a clear attempt to rework the formula of the average horror films we’ve all seen a trillion times. This leaves us with a half-twist near the end, but the film plays predictably for the most part. To talk without a crippling vagueness about this, I’m going to have to delve into…
The biggest let-downs of the film, as implied already, are in the script. The focus on character, on the Warrens, begins to justify the sequels we’re getting; the chronicles of this couple’s career being intriguing with them as the centre-piece. However, what the script is desperately missing in respect to Ed and Lorraine is their pasts, is the issues of their relationship expressed through cinematics and the surreal imagery implemented throughout. What I mean to talk about here is the image of the Nun which turns out to be the central antagonist – the demon thing. This demonic figure is reduced to a terrible joke: knowing the evil thing’s name as to beat it. We see it in The Neverending Story and we see it in Batman V Superman. The example in this film isn’t as bad as in Batman, but fails to justify itself as is done in The Neverending Story.
If you’re not familiar with the film, in short, a kid’s imagination is being destroyed by the pressure of his life under the stifling roof of his widowed father. To save his imagination, the Neverending Story he reads from a blank book, from a great nothing he has to utilise his mother’s name. Though this isn’t the most sophisticated use of a metaphorical plot, it makes sense for the film. It’s exactly this that The Conjuring 2 and a plethora of other modern horror films are missing. I can’t praise it enough and should probably do a post on it, but…
… this is, in short, how to fully utilise the paranormal/psychological horror genre. However, without diving too deep into tangential subjects, The Conjuring 2 is simply missing subtextual meaning. It’s here where spoilers become crucial. Throughout the film with the character of Billy (the ghost) we see glimmers of child-abuse as a hidden theme. This shines through with the use of Janet, the little girl, as the central character, her fatherless family on the periphery and the constant reference to calling out for help as to change your life. The use of child abuse as a recognised theme, in my opinion, would elevate this film in almost all elements of the script. Not only would it construct much deeper dramatics, but leave open the chance for wrenching, disturbing and truly terrifying moments of horror. I point to the scene where Janet is locked in the room with Billy. If she wasn’t simply smothered by the curtains, but the audience given the implimence of something much darker, the moment would have been imbued with much greater desperation and potency. This would transform the narrative, through the scary sequences, into a story of a victim facing one of the worst things that could ever happen to a person. I see huge conflict in this idea though. The juxtaposition of this with the church could imply heavy social commentary. This would seem unwarranted as The Conjuring is clearly quite a conservative, theologically centred film. It seems to respect Christianity and the church and so to imply scenes of child abuse with the church refusing to act, to try to prevent it, says…
… well, it says a lot. Nonetheless, the use of this mature theme would allow for a much stronger narrative with the dire subtext deepening character and elevating the movie towards another film it references, arguably, far too often. The Exorcist has clearly influenced this film. We see this in the simple use of the religiously paranormal as a genre. Moreover, The Exorcist’s influence is inherent in all the voice changing sequences – but, they’re simply not done to the standards Friendkin portrayed. Furthermore, it’s the comparison to The Exorcist that strengths the criticism of Wan’s direction. It lacks poignancy because of the concentration on camera movement instead of filmic language. By comparing Friendkin’s style to Wan’s we see a major difference in the portrayal of character. However, staying on the concept of themes, utilising an explosive and devastating idea of child abuse, The Conjuring 2 would have an inkling of the pure balls The Exorcist did. In using the theme maturely, we wouldn’t be seeing a shit exploitation picture, but, as said, a film steeped in character and subtext. This subtext would imbue the film with great depth in respect not only to the Hodgeson family, but the Warrens. The use of the demon, calling its name and so on, under a narrative centred subtextually around child abuse, would imply an awful lot about Ed and Lorraine. It’s possible that they too have dark pasts which transforms their God-given skills into metaphors of strength and inner turmoil.
Nonetheless, wishing an emphasis of theme and meaning on the script as is rather futile. This is because of a few reasons. As mentioned, the inadvertent commentary on the church and religion here wouldn’t fit the tone of the film. But, what’s more is that this is based on a ‘true story’. This is biggest flaw with the script: verisimilitude. Not only does it try to say the Enfield cases were real (I’ll leave you to research) but it confines itself to real life people and situations. This would leave the suggestion of child abuse unsavoury at best, insulting at worst. However, abandoning the idea of adding the theme, the fight for verisimilitude throughout the narrative is painful. The film being religious is nothing to object to, but the use of religion to sell cinematics is something I’ve always found to be little more than poor writing. I can’t speak for all people, but… do we really believe in ghosts? Who out there truly believes that anything like the shit we see in The Conjuring has or could happen? Forgive my lack of imagination, but I honestly couldn’t see anyone believing this, which leaves me questioning the film. Why is it trying to convince us that ghosts, chants, hauntings and so on are real things? A sci-fi writer doesn’t have to make you believe that parallel dimensions exist, that light speed could be breached. The writer implies some kind of capability, but what sells ideas of time travel, warp drives and so on is simply imagination, a question of What if? This is the same in horror films. We only need our inherent fear of being attacked by a monster or chased down by a killer to understand the fantasy and cinematics of a horror movie. We don’t need conspiracy theories, a network of beliefs and so on. It’s this constant battle for verisimilitude that grinds on the viewing experience, but also makes the action of the third act ridiculous. Wanting to tell a true story, but also a deeply cinematic one, one with crazy stunts, surreal sequences, hyperbolic camera movement, is utterly nonsensical. It adds an air of pretension to the far-fetched, almost overly sentimental narrative.
For all of these things, it’s easy to writhe in your chair as the movie plods along. However, this isn’t a terrible film. What brings The Conjuring 2 down is primarily its relationship with the movies around it – modern horrors. They almost all suffer from mediocre script work, a futile emphasis on verisimilitude, but also a lack of meaning – of metaphorical imagery. This can only leave us questioning how to make these films better, how to hopefully create our own, improving the genre, forming it into something greater.
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