I saw two sequels this week. While I had cheap fun at Independence Day: Resurgence (sometimes at its expense), I flat-out loved The Conjuring 2. Let me try to articulate my happiness. No spoilers, because I want you to see this.
Let’s begin with this. The battered thing you see below is one of the most important books in my life. I bought it forty years ago this past March, and it pretty much set me on my course. So much of who I am as an academic and as a writer comes down to this book.
And this is one of the pages I would pour over. This was the 70s, remember. The only way to see a movie was to catch it in the theatres or strike it lucky with a broadcast on TV. Practically, this meant that my opportunities to see horror movies were few and far between. I was too young to see them in the theatres or to stay up for the Chiller Thriller. So, the closest I came to most of them was stills and descriptions. The idea that I would one day see most of these (never mind own them) was beyond imagining. (So yes, this is a golden age in this department.) With regards to this page, the two pictures that most fascinated me were the top left and the bottom. They are from Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby… Kill! (1966).
Watching The Conjuring 2, I experienced the same magic my younger self did looking at these pictures. Setting aside the terror of the jump scares, James Wan has crafted a truly beautiful movie. Every shot is perfectly composed, whether or not the purpose of the scene is to generate fear. The scene where Vera Farmiga and Madison Wolfe sit on swings and talk is as stunning to look at (and so perfect at evoking the emotions the scene seeks to generate) as the disorienting vertical shots in a narrow passage at the climax, or when, much earlier, the swings are seen through a kitchen window (a shot that very much reminded me of the Dreyer and Bava ones above).
Consider, too, the opening shot, where the camera slowly tracks back through windows, revealing them to be the iconic eyes of the Amityville house. We never see its exterior, and we don’t need to. That simple moment carries a charge of menace and a shock of delighted recognition, and let’s face it, this is the best movie that house has ever appeared in. Wan’s love of the 70s is clear not just in his recreation of the era (as in the first film, infinitely more convincing and lived-in than the geek show approach of the likes of American Hustle), but in his picking up the torch of the horror films of that period. This is supernatural horror that takes its time, mixing gradual build-up and jump scares in the style of The Exorcist. There are a couple of misjudged uses of CGI, but even they make thematic sense, and there’s one, which involves the transformation of something that should be familiar and comforting, that understands very well one of the most fundamental mechanisms of nightmares.
Is the movie frightening? That’s a deeply subjective question. The people sitting behind us weren’t terribly impressed, whereas when my stepson went to see it, a woman in front of him was reduced to the screaming horrors. For myself, if I get even one moment these days of feeling the hair on my arms stand up, I’m ecstatic.
The Conuring 2 gave me three.
I’m over the moon.
I was not wild about Saw when that came out, and when James Wan turned to gothic horror with Dead Silence, my eyebrows were raised. Time has proven me dead wrong. There is no doubt in my mind now that he is an important figure in the history of the horror film, belonging in the patheon of Bava, Argento, Carpenter, and the like. I hope he has many more nightmares to give us.