I preface this review at an odd angle: by discussing Stephen Sommers’ two movies The Mummy and The Mummy Returns. The first film released in 1999 was a surprise hit and prompted the 2001 sequel. It is hard to call either movie an intellectual effort. They are both summer popcorn fare with the first entry being more ingratiating than the second. That is, in part, because the second failed to recognize what the first movie actually was: a ’30s Saturday serial more in line with Indiana Jones than Boris Karloff.
Had the filmmakers capitalized on that vibe and the chemistry between The O’Connells, played by Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, and forsaken the need to constantly throw the living dead in their path, the franchise would have lasted longer. (A third film, not directed by Sommers, goes to great pains to contrive a new mummy to fight.)
This is a cautionary tale meant to educate the filmmakers behind the burgeoning Conjuring series. Fortunately, they haven’t quite hit the misstep yet. They came close. Annabelle, the demon doll, got a spin-off movie. A sequel to the spin-off is, as they say, in the works. The Annabelle tangent is dangerously close to Mummy 2 territory in that it misses what has been so appealing about the Conjuring movies up to this point.
Let’s backtrack. In The Conjuring 2, a down-on-their-luck family in London (in the 1970s) has befallen an even worse tragedy, worse than the faulty pipes in the basement, the deadbeat dad that wife Peggy Hodgson never sees or gets child support from, or the young child who stutters and is singled out for ridicule by other children. His sister is his constant defender, as are his other siblings, but she in particular draws our attention because she will have to fight hauntings and possession.
This tale of the tragic and disturbing reaches American paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) and they are whisked off to England to see what they can see. At the same time, Lorraine herself is being haunted by images of a demon in a nun’s habit, a flooded basement, and the impaling of her husband. That is a shocking scene of violence, but it is one of very, very few, and frankly you only need to see it once (and repeated once) to set up the tension. Once these are set in place, the prime mover is not a gory gross-out, but a lingering dread punctuated by sudden actions and a handful of well-executed creepy as hell moments.
Director James Wan returns for his second go-round, and he’s no stranger to the genre. He directed Insidious and helped set off the horror revival many years before as director of the original Saw movie, reigniting the dubious “torture-porn” genre that was once a fixture of exploitation cinema. He’s also proposed to be the director for DC Entertainment’s upcoming Aquaman film. If that sounds like a messed-up pairing, you need to see The Conjuring 2 where it will make more sense. In his hands, the children that form the center of the piece are not just young bodies to be thrown about and tormented. The mother (played by a nearly unrecognizable Frances O’Connor) transcends what could have just been a screechy British woman barking out “Allos” and “Arses.” He actually is able to push past caricature and get to characters, which the DC cinematic universe is in dire need of.
And leading back to the first statement I made, Wan has found in Wilson and Farmiga a real chemistry that, while tied to the horror milieu, could easily survive outside of it. As the real-life Ed and Lorraine were inextricably tied to the paranormal and the Amityville murder investigation, it would be hard to separate their characterizations out from the spook-fest trappings, but you could try and I think you could make it work. It is something for the filmmakers to remember as they pursue this series. Another spinoff, The Nun (which kind of looks like Marilyn Manson in drag), which stems from the demon-nun specter in this movie is being made. This is a franchise with a lot of legs apparently. It is my hope that these don’t do damage to the original series, as there is something special going on between the actors playing The Warrens. I’d hate to see that lost or, recalling The Mummy, transmuted into something like the ill-regarded spinoff (yuck) The Scorpion King.
The film, while rated “R,” is surprisingly held together. The language is mild and bursts of jarring violence are minimal. What pervades the film is the lingering suspense of what is or is not going to happen, and the images of a young girl being controlled by demonic forces will always unsettle. There is a great restraint being exercised throughout, where others in this crowded field are more content to let the blood fly with the excuse, “It’s only a movie.” Wan is coming into his own. Much like another horror director who stepped out of the genre, Peter Jackson, he is beginning to prove he is capable of a lot of other things. The Conjuring 2, like all that came before it, is also only a movie, but in his hands for 134 minutes, it doesn’t feel that way.