JAMES WAN IS A HORROR FAN and so is not an easy target for criticism from the like-minded. He is one of us. And because he is only 38 years old, one suspects he will someday have something to say in his careful recreations of horror tableau. But he’s not there yet.
Which is to say, Wan’s horror movies are always watchable, and good for a couple of terrific scenes, but generally lack the subtext that might make them successful films. They aren’t movies you think about when you’re lying in bed at night.
Like its 2013 predecessor, CONJURING 2 is based on a case file from demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, whose life work makes for good reading and good one-hour television. It should make for good cinema, as well, but hasn’t so far. Lorraine Warren and her late husband are captivating subjects, and attractive to boot as played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson.
CONJURING 2 focuses on the Warrens as a couple but inexplicably tries to shoehorn that story into the most exhaustively documented haunting in modern history, the Enfield Poltergeist. The result is a 2 hour, 12-minute movie that handles neither story well and, despite its length, uses awkward shorthand to evoke the time and place of 1977 England.
It is decidedly not based on the book “This House is Haunted” by Guy Lyon Playfair, who lived with the family for months and documented their experiences in often dull detail. His presence is redacted from CONJURING 2, which was probably smart in a movie already crowded with half-drawn characters.
Still, Wan manages two set pieces that make CONJURING 2 worthwhile: One is a seance of sorts in which the young center of the haunting, 11-year-old Janet, channels her suppressing spirit. Mostly one shot, Wan makes strong use of widescreen and CGI (go figure) for a genuinely disquieting effect.
The other is a classic, a long waking dream of a terrifying painting and a demon in the house, a sort of amalgam of incidents that purportedly happened in the Warrens’ Connecticut home. It likely will join the ranks of the LEGION: EXORCIST III (1990) hospital scene in horror cinema lore.
For the most part, however, Wan’s palate — a crisp, digital sheen — doesn’t lend itself to scares. It’s too artificial, at odds with his focus on ordinary families struggling with the ineffable.
CONJURING 2 is getting a lot of positive press and I suppose it delivers in a summer movie way. But horror is having a renaissance of sorts, and alongside films such as KILL LIST (2011), IT FOLLOWS (2014) and THE WITCH (2015), Wan’s horrors are second rate. They are not about anything, and therefore don’t resonate in any way.