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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: The Conjuring 2

THE CONJURING 2 (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: James Wan, 2016

“Discover the truth behind the event that shocked the world.”
~ New Line Cinema Press book for The Conjuring 2.

People who like scary ghost horror movies, from Frankenstein to The Haunting, probably are partial, at least a little, to that awesome, icky sensation of being plunged into sucking swamps of cinematic dread, then rescued (maybe spuriously, maybe not) at the very last possible millisecond—a sensation you may feel quite a few times in The Conjuring 2. Some of these shivering aficionados may also believe that the current flood of mass-market nightmares, however wildly improbable they seem, might actually happen in the real world, that demons and witches exist and could some day come after us.

In this case, the “real life” protagonists are the real-life Hodgson family of the borough of Enfield, in London, England in 1977: a bedeviled working class family headed by Frances O’Connor as single mother Peggy Hodgson, with little Madison Wolfe as her most supernatural-sensitive child Janet, and the rest of the Hodgson clan played by Lauren Esposito, Benjamin Haigh, Patrick McAuley and others. Ghost detectives Ed and Lorraine Warren, who were introduced to us in the first Conjuring movie (played here as there by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are two actual famed real-life paranormal investigators and ghost hunters whose adventures inspired the supposedly real life spook epic, The Amityville Horror (1979), as well as this sequel to director James Wan’s 2013 smash hit The Conjuring — another smash hit and also the latest example of a horror movie that tries to diddle with out sense of reality.

Did it really happen? The press book and the movie itself seem hell-bent on convincing us it did. The alleged real life ghosts allegedly unearthed by the real-life Lorraine and Ed in this “true” shocker include such horrifying and improbable showstoppers as Bill Wilkins the murderous septuagenarian (Bob Adrian), the incredible flying demon nun (Bonnie Aaron) and an evil-looking Crooked Man (Javier Botet) who hangs out in the kids’ zoetrope toy. Real or not, they’re likely to give you a few frissons, since they keep incessantly leaping out at the Hodgson kids, and Peggy, and Lorraine and Ed and assorted other eye-witnesses, from behind doors or around corners and to the accompaniment of the loud horrific clangs you often hear in horror and haunted house movies.

Pardon my irreverence. After all, these blood-drenched maniacs and demon nuns are only trying to make a living in a distressed economy (just as the Hodgsons were back in 1977). That’s why they’re all lucky — ghosts and ghostbusters alike — to have crossed paths with James Wan, The Wizard of Saws.

For the last decade or so, we’ve been bombarded with these allegedly part-true-life scary movies: film shockers that try to persuade us that they’re somebody‘s found footage from a garage or attic, or a cinema verite’ documentary or a security video camera record, or that they’re stories taken from or inspired by real life. Since the same sort of things usually happen in these movies — which tend to show us “normal” bourgeois families terrorized, or bevies of nubile teenagers making out and beset by the maniacs, the monsters or sometimes The Devil Himself — it tends to give you a stomach-turning view of contemporary society: its bad dreams, its bad trips and the reality that supposedly inspired them.

This movie is well-shot and fairly well-acted, but not particularly well-written. For me, the best horror movies or tales that actually are about contemporary reality — or try to make us think they are — include Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining — in the last case, both the original novel by Stephen King (as good a horror story, I think, as anyone can write), and, to a lesser extent, the movie Stanley Kubrick made from it. These are movies that really do freeze the blood and get under your skin, breeding nightmares. The new found footage shockers, though they work well with the right kind of audience, often suggest some kind of screaming, bloody academic conference of spookology: Horror movies as the cracked crazy-house mirrors of today‘s flawed reality. It’s not just “only a movie.“ (Supposedly.) It’s really happening, a documentary record of the dark, mad side of life and death. And if they aren’t really happening, they could be. Supposedly.

The Conjuring 2 is not a found footage movie — like the videotapes supposedly recovered from the from the first Conjuring and the woodsy massacre of The Blair Witch Project, or the surveillance cameras that keep just missing the action in Paranormal Activity, though there is some footage supposedly shot by a local TV news cameraman (Chris Royds). Instead the moviemakers, who had the whole project blessed by Father Steven Sanchez of the Roman Catholic Church of Albuquerque, New Mexico, inform us that these events really happened in 1977 in Enfield, London and that the people are real (played by actors using the actual names of the real people, shown side by side in the credits) and that everything we see actually, truly happened.

Since what we see includes the mad doings in an alleged haunted house — assaults by beings from beyond the gave, beds levitating and flying past each other, a painting of the demon nun careening around the house in pursuit of Lorraine Warren, and an evil maniac sneaking around, trying to do a raspy-voiced impersonation of the great Mercedes McCambridge (the voice of the Devil from The Exorcist) — the movie tends to suggest that we live in a world madder than the Mad Hatter in the “Alice“ books and movies, more blood thirsty than Dracula, and obsessed for some reason with destroying the Hodgson family and humiliating the Warrens.

We’re also asked to believe that the little dark crooked figure in that whirling zoetrope machine, can come alive and start chasing Hodgsons, that the ghost of a murderer can taunt his victims and pursuers from an easy chair, That Ed not only knows all the words to Elvis’ anthem “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” but can dangle out of a high window for what seems hours, while holding a screaming child and being harassed by one of the monsters. And just to show how silly we all are if we question any of this, at least while we’re watching the show, the cast includes two obnoxious iconoclasts — Franka Potente of Run Lola Run as a German parapsychologist and Cory English as a sneaky, sneery little pain in the ass (also both supposedly patterned after real people), and shows them behaving like smug know-it-alls, who don’t have the Hodgson family’s interest at heart. Unlike Ed and Lorraine of course — and perhaps also unlike the upcoming foursome in the new Ghostbusters.

Wan, whose movies are tremendous moneymakers — they also include the first Saw Movie, the other Conjuring picture, the seventh Fast and Furious and both Insidiouses — is now being hailed as a genius, or at the very least a master craftsman. (Or maybe just a guy whose movies make an awful lot of money.) He certainly knows how to create a sense of awful sticky unease, and to crank up the terror and make audiences jump. He and cinematographer Don Burgess also move the camera almost as well as that other horror specialist John Carpenter — if not as well as that genuine genius of cinema Stanley Kubrick. I wouldn’t describe Wan as a master in the way Hitchcock, Polanski and Kubrick were masters, but he knows what he‘s doing and he definitely understands what appeals to audiences these days. Maybe some day, he will make classics of horror, and it would be ironic if, when he does, the mass audience deserts him for some other whiz kid who knows all the formulas. And who knows how to bring on the Devil, cue the demon nun and make us jump.

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