‘The Conjuring 2’ and the Performative Pleasure of Horror Filmmaking

James Wan's haunted house sequel has all sorts of problems, but there’s never a moment’s doubt that you’re in the hands of a professional.

The best moment of James Wan’s original The Conjuring – aside from that great handclap on the cellar steps – comes at the very, very end. The haunted house at the film’s center has been rid of its demons. Demonologist Ed Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and his sideburns) is placing a mirrored toy, one of the haunting’s totems, in a saferoom for such objects in the home he shares with fellow ghost-hunter and wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga). In previous scenes, the mirror was an effective jump-scare device; a terrifying figure would appear in it unexpectedly, accompanied by a music stinger, and we’d all jump or scream, and then laugh because it’s fun to be scared at the movies. So Wan’s camera pushes in on the mirror, as we all brace in our seats for that one, last jolt that seemingly no modern horror movie can resist.

And then, like a boss, Wan doesn’t give us that last scare we’re waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for; he lingers on the mirror for as long as he can, and then cuts to black. He’s fucking with us, and it’s kind of great. It’s what makes his horror movies fun – that he’s been doing this for so long that he’s mastered the visual language and visceral expectations, and seems to derive a great deal of pleasure out of banging them up against each other. His new Conjuring sequel has all sorts of problems, but there’s never a moment’s doubt that you’re in the hands of a professional.

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Here, Wan and his three co-writers give us another chapter in the ghost-busting adventures of the Warrens, the real-life demonologists at the center of the 2013 original, whose ‘70s setting and “based on the true story” vibe gave Wan the chance to do an Amityville Horror riff – and, unsurprisingly enough, the Warrens were deeply embedded in that “haunting” as well. It comes into play in the sequel’s prologue, but is quickly dropped (thank goodness; that story has, to put it mildly, been more than sufficiently dramatized) in favor of what Lorraine’s opening voice-over deems “the one that still haunts me.” The first film’s opening scroll called that case “so malevolent, they’ve kept it locked away until now.” By The Conjuring 6, we’ll presumably work our way down to “Oh Christ, I forgot we even did that one.”

The haunting this time is in Enfield, North London, which allows our film to arrive in England to the woefully predictable sounds of “London Calling” (or maybe not so predictable, since the story is set in 1977 and that record came out in 1979, but I digress). After the unfortunate introduction of a homemade Ouija board, the row house of recently divorced mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her five children is suddenly overtaken by demonic horrors: bumps in the night, thrown furniture, mysterious figures, toys that turn on out of nowhere, and scariest of all, a television that keeps switching to a Thatcher speech.

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You know how these things go. What makes the Conjuring movies – and Wan’s other haunted house series, Insidious – work is that Wan knows you know, and knows that you know that he knows, and so on. So he’s playing off our mutual knowledge of these tropes, seeing how long he can stretch out the pregnant pauses in the night, seizing on our expectation of that first jolt from the Ouija planchette, aware that when the kid kicks his toy firetruck under the bedsheet tent, it’s not a question of if it’s coming back out, but when. Those bits and gags are what he’s there for, and us too; they give the movie its knowing kick.

Which is not to say that Conjuring 2 is a great movie, or even a particularly good one. It runs a staggering (for what it is, at least) 132 minutes, and plays very much like a first cut; we could both tick off a list of the scenes that could go, and they’d probably match up. Dumb dialogue and dumber backstories are plentiful, the portraiture of the crackpot Warrens is borderline hagiographical (in the first film, it turned out Ed was not just an exorcist but an ace auto mechanic; this time his additional hats include oil painter and household handyman), and though O’Connor does her best, she can’t fill the void left by the unavoidable lack of Lili Taylor this time around (try as they might, they can’t muster the emotional richness of her exorcism-ending connection with Farmiga, or even the credibility she lent to a line like “They mean the world to me”).

But when Wan is doing his thing, you can’t help but admire his chops. There’s something downright performative about horror directing, more than any other genre, and I’m not just talking about his showy camera moves and jaunty angles. The aforementioned mutual awareness results in a kind of cheerful dialogue between filmmaker and audience; he tips his hand at the conventions, we lock on them, and we respond to them (and each other) with our gasps, our screams, our jumps, our laughs. On some level, it’s why we go to the movies: to have a visceral experience in the dark, with a room full of strangers. It’s fun to watch him work, is the point, and that’s probably enough.

The Conjuring 2 is out Friday.