On evocative darkness and proximity to evil in James Wan's The Conjuring 2
The Conjuring 2 Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: James Wan
Screenplay: Carey Hayes, Chad Hayes, James Wan and David Johnson
Starring: Madison Wolfe, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O'Connor, Simon McBurney, Lauren Esposito, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Patrick McAuley and Benjamin Haigh
Rated R / 2 hours, 14 minutes
June 10, 2016
(out of four)
In a horror movie, evil surrounds the characters. Chases them; hunts them; envelops them. In a James Wan horror movie, it's often the opposite. The evil is already present, and the characters are drawn to it, pulled closer to its orbit, before they even realize how close they are. It is, perhaps, a harder kind of evil to escape. Being pursued is one thing; getting caught in a supernatural undertow is quite another.
It makes its presence felt by its very absence. In his composition and staging for The Conjuring 2, Wan makes darkness itself - pockets of pitch black, darkness bordering on emptiness - the focal point, like black holes hovering inside the characters' physical space. Over and over, it's placed directly in the center of the frame - an open doorway standing like a monolith between lit walls, its impenetrability practically giving it physical mass; a tent at the end of a hallway, its flaps curled open to reveal a deep, foreboding nothing. Other times, it will be the centerpiece of a specific place - the desk that sits prominently in the center of a room, eclipsed in shadow. A blacked-out fireplace; or a recliner in the corner; or even an entire wall.
The film, like so much of Wan's work, takes place within a few contained locations - haunted houses, locked rooms - and the way he uses negative space to suggest the presence of something, or someone, lingering in our midst has a potent effect, and once again plays into his penchant for centralizing his horrors. This extends even as far back as the big twist in Saw, with the great menace revealed to be right in the center of the room all along.
That sense of proximity is used in an even more pronounced way in The Conjuring 2 than his previous efforts. By forcing his characters to coexist with ... well, whatever force happens to be pervading their lives, there's the persistent sense that they're always moving inward on it, always threatened by it, even when they're not interacting with it (or, rather, it's not interacting with them, as it so often likes to) in any way, during those cold, idle narrative pauses that are, perversely, even more haunting than the scares themselves.
True to form, the images and instruments of terror always come, in some way, from within. In the painting that taunts paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) from the safety of her own drawing room - a painting whose central image (a demonic nun) begins to encroach on her physical day-to-day. It's in the darkened corner of the bedroom that up until recently was your private sanctuary. It's in the mirror, right behind your own reflection. And, as always, it's in your dreams, too. "Hiding in plain sight" isn't quite the right term for the evil at work here, but it's in the ballpark.
Lorraine's visions are tied - how exactly, she doesn't know - to the new case she's agreed to investigate (despite swearing off new cases in one of the film's early scenes), which has brought her and husband Ed (Patrick Wilson) to North London* not long after completing their documentation of the Amityville case, and about five years after the events of the first movie.
* I can't believe we still have to be having this discussion, but yes, somehow Wan chooses to introduce our transition from the States to London with the musical cue of ... [*sighs, places palm on face*] ... yes that's right, "London Calling" by The Clash. A year and a half ago, in a review of the third Night at the Museum movie, I disconsolately complained about that same exact musical cue, of course accompanied (in both cases) by the same stock footage of London every other movie uses. The song's usage in this movie is even more shocking if only because it seems to be so deeply below Wan's instincts, which are usually so specific. Here, he embarrassingly defaults to possibly the single laziest micro-trend in all of filmmaking. Pick another song, everyone. PICK ANOTHER SONG.
The case this time involves a poltergeist situation at a home in Enfield, where single mother Peggy Hodgson (the father has been MIA for years) lives with her three daughters and son. Most affected (and the film's unequivocal lead character, despite Farmiga and Wilson's star presence) is Janet (Madison Wolfe, in a revelatory performance), who has seemingly become not just oppressed by forces living within this house, but possibly possessed as well. Recent unexplained phenomena have drawn the attention of the local news, as well as various investigators (like Maurice Gross, played by Simon McBurney) and skeptics (such as Anita Gregory, played by Franka Potente) alike.
But the Warrens are the most prominent, and seemingly the most sensitive to the girl's claims, Lorraine in particular. We get to see the lengths of her empathy, the way she has to internalize every case she takes on, in a splendid psychological sequence in which she proceeds through the entire Amityville massacre, standing in for Ronald DeFeo as he/she commits each murder - a sequence likely inspired by Bryan Fuller's Hannibal and the methods of fellow empath Will Graham.
That scene is representative of the film's strength, which is in its bold horror sequences. Working with a few bigger tools and more elaborate tricks than we usually see from the typically low-budget helmer, Wan is more than up to the task. With this kind of contained horror, we don't always think in terms of setpieces - we're used to seeing quick bursts and jump-scares - but that's exactly what Wan gives us. One dream sequence is particularly powerful in the way it uses fluid, surreal imagery and household intimacy to stoke primal fears.
The film is much less successful, however, in its plotting. Often it seems like it's just going through the motions between scares, or trying (clumsily) to bridge one suspenseful sequence to the next. There are worse sins for a film to commit, but it makes for a noticeably wobbly narrative. On a related note, I couldn't help but get the sense that it was also being hampered somewhat by its obligation to focus so much on the Warrens, despite how good Farmiga and Wilson both are. No doubt they're important to this story and necessarily instrumental in its resolution, but the details of the case - and Janet as a character - are strong enough to stand on their own, rather than relying on another set of characters to balance them out or speak on their behalf.