On horror

We allowed the girls to watch “The Conjuring 2,” the sequel to the frightening 2013 horror hit “The Conjuring” (who could have guessed?) and despite the film’s R rating the movie played for us more like a rollercoaster ride than a gross-out, adults-only gore flick.

The “Conjuring” movies (1 and 2 so far, with various spinoffs ahead) are directed by James Wan, who has now proven himself as not only a solid director of horror but a creative filmmaker, period. I do not normally go in for horror because, I suppose, real life is frightening enough, and maybe I’m something of a pussy, but I enjoyed the first two “Conjuring” films and will no doubt stand in line for the third.

This is an interesting development in the genre, as the “Conjuring” films are becoming something of a universe in their own right, like the Marvel movies (which have worn out their welcome with me) and Universal’s upcoming slate of “Classic Monster” movies (Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, etc.). There has already been one spin-off, “Annabelle,” released in 2014, and that film’s sequel will be out this year. Yet another franchise possibility, titled “The Nun,” will be out sometime in 2018 … more on this character later.

As long as they’re done well and don’t get too obnoxious, I can tolerate, even enjoy and heap praise upon, these admitted corporate tentpoles. I’m sure no one ever envisioned the first “Conjuring,” with its 1970s-style haunted house, as the first in a long line of films about Ed and Lorraine Warren, the original ghostbusters. Yet box office returns speak for themselves, and high earnings for the original inevitably mean sequels.

Still, these are good movies, tightly plotted, imaginatively directed and well-acted, so I’m willing to give them a pass. The first “Conjuring,” as I said, was set in a haunted house, and a doozy of one. It reminded me of early-1970s scare fests – the cheaper the better – but was made with the same care and attention to detail that Stanley Kubrick lavished on “The Shining.” It is has some truly suspenseful moments leading to some genuine scares, and if the characters occasionally seem as dumb as fence posts, well, certain time-honored tropes must be honored. It’s still an entertaining film, and its minor flaws are not a distraction.

We were excited to get to see “Conjuring 2” in a theater last summer and it was more than satisfying – way scarier than, say, the remake/reboot of “Poltergeist” (the original is still better). Horror sequels are normally a lame lot (looking at you, “Exorcist II”) but not this one. I realized watching it again for the third time that it holds up on repeat viewings. You wait for the scares and dread them.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, two underrated actors, return to their roles of Ed and Lorraine. They were the pair who rid a family of demons in the first “Conjuring.” Here they are called on (by the Catholic Church) to investigate the haunting of an apartment in Enfield, England. This case, like the other, is based loosely (very loosely … very, very loosely) on a “true story,” infamous as the Enfield Poltergeist.

Ed and Lorraine Warren were paranormal investigators operating under a cloud of negative publicity; some accused them of exaggerating reports or blowing cases out of proportion. They were involved in the investigation of the Amityville Horror, still one of the scariest murder/demon possession cases of all time. That case provides the opening scene for this movie.

Wan does a great job setting the mood, showing us the Warrens inside the haunted Amityville home, where Lorraine has an out-of-body experience. She seems possessed by the body of Ronald DeFeo, the shotgun killer who massacred his entire family as they slept. The episode leads her to the basement of the house, where she encounters … well, more about this character in a moment.

Lorraine exits the Amityville séance convinced she’s had a vision of her husband’s impending death. Ed handles this information with his usual cheerful aplomb, going about his business, painting oil portraits of demons and retorting to those skeptical of his work, “What are you gonna do about it?” Meanwhile, in not-so merry-olde-England, single mom Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her horde of pre-teen children are haunted by the shade of a mean old man named Bill. Bill can possess one of the girls, manipulating her body and even speaking through her. The scenes of Bill making his presence known are most unnerving.

Wan throws in the kitchen sink but does so in ways that recall not only Kubrick but early Spielberg. There is a long, suspenseful scene in which a young boy playfully sends a toy rolling into a teepee. It’s the middle of the night, and we’ve already heard all manner of disembodied voices and loud knocks. We know the toy is going to come right back out. And when it does, I was reminded of nothing less than “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” when the presence of extraterrestrials awakens toys and household appliances. Wan is good at making the ordinary seem menacing.

There are all kinds of jump-cuts and shock cuts and music cues that keep us edgy, but Wan devises two truly demonic creatures that bump the film into classic territory. The first is Bill, whose gravelly voice and sarcastic laugh make him a diabolical villain. His best scene is with Wilson; as the camera focuses on Ed’s tense face, Bill overtakes the young girl in the background, for a conversation that is both disturbing and fun to watch. The other is the Demon Nun, whose secret name Wan cleverly spells out for us in unexpected places. The Nun is just that – a demon in nun’s clothing, gliding from the shadows, appearing in full figure to Lorraine, delivering ominous warnings (basement scene) suggestive of hellfire. Her scariest scene is the stuff of nightmares. In it, Lorraine watches, terrified, as the nun’s sinister shadow slithers across walls to end up behind … Ed’s portrait of a demonic nun. And then … but I won’t spoil it!

What does all this mean? What is all this for? Well, to scare the hell out of us – not to make us think, or laugh, or reflect on our lives, or make us be better people. It’s not a transformative experience. It doesn’t make any grandiose statements. Did the Warrens actually have these close encounters with demonic forces? Of course not! Is this an entertaining movie with a clear sense of good vs. evil? Yes, absolutely. Sure it goes overboard; of course it gets silly toward the end. There are worse horror movies out there … much, much worse.

Of course … I’d a lot rather not think about those bad horror movies and concentrate on the good. What do I think are some good horror movies, even some great ones? Here’s the list so far (in no order):

The Conjuring

The Conjuring 2

 

 

The Shining

 

 

The Blair Witch Project (its 2016 sequel, Blair Witch, ain’t bad, either)

The Visit

The Sixth Sense


 

The Devil’s Rejects (which I will never, ever, watch again)

 

 

The Exorcist III (which I will never, ever, watch again)

Paranormal Activity (the first one, not its knockoff sequels)

The Exorcist (so intense I don’t even consider it entertainment)

Black Christmas (will not watch again)

Alien (more horror than sci-fi)

Poltergeist (1982 … and almost something of a comedy!)

Jaws (though it could be argued this is an action-adventure movie)

War of the Worlds (2005, Spielberg)

Insidious (Wan and Wilson, together again)

The Goonies (just kidding)