the conjuring 2 trailer

The Conjuring was one of my favorite films of 2013 and remains a genuine contender for one of the best horror movies of the past decade. At the time, it felt like a summation of everything director James Wan had accomplished until that point: it was a clever crowdpleaser filled with scares, but it was also character-driven and classy, recalling an age where horror movies didn’t have to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

The Conjuring 2 ranked high on my most anticipated films of 2016 list and my faith was not displaced. Although not quite as good as the first film, this is one of the best horror sequels ever made, capturing what made the first movie so special and sprinting with it. With Wan taking another break from horror to make Aquaman, this is a perfect and fitting a tribute to the genre that made his career, a gift to people who like horror movies with a little bit of ambition. Let’s take a closer look at what makes The Conjuring 2 work so well…and what holds it back from being as good as the first one. SPOILERS ahead.

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Two New Horror Icons

The basic nature of the horror genre leads to the canonization of its villains. Nobody remembers the name of Jason Voorhees’ victims – they remember the hockey masked killer who transforms them into mincemeat. Nobody quotes the poor schmucks getting torn asunder in A Nightmare on Elm Street – they’re quoting Freddy Krueger’s grotesque wisecracks. Characters like Michael Myers and Leatherface are joined by the likes of Frankenstein’s monster, Count Dracula and the Phantom of the Opera in this particular club. Even when the bad guys are defeated, they always return for the sequel. The bad guys are the draw. With the notable exception of Ash from the Evil Dead series, the villains, the monsters, are the main draw for just about every horror series.

And that’s what makes The Conjuring and its sequel so damn refreshing. While the demonic forces paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren face off against in these films are intimidating and scary, they are also mysterious and vague, forces that cannot be be understood because they do not want to be understood. That means that the stars of these movies are the Warrens. This is the rare horror story whose central heroes are the main draw. The chief appeal of The Conjuring isn’t that it’ll scare you silly (and it is a nerve-wracking movie), it’s that we get to watch the Warrens tackle another case together.

Ed and Lorraine are everything that most horror protagonists are not. They are smart. They’re on the same page. They do not underestimate the threat at hand. It’s telling that both of these movies spend a long time establishing a family being haunted and terrorized by supernatural forces before bringing these two directly into the main plot. Once they arrive, stuff starts to get done. For a genre that so often relies on everyone on screen being a total idiot, the competence of the Warrens is refreshing. Neither of their films have treated them as superhuman and they are not immune to fear, but they have the steady calm and professionalism of people who have been doing this for years. They’re fun to watch because they are recognizably human and because they are fairly normal people who just so happen t0 be extraordinarily good at their very unusual job. It helps that each one is an expert in different corners of paranormal research. They function as a team because their work constantly highlights how their different areas of expertise complement one another.

It’s not clear how or if this series will continue (the weekend box office suggests that a Conjuring 3 will probably happen), but it’s safe to say that Ed and Lorraine Warren genuinely feel like modern horror icons, characters who have secured their place in the larger horror canon. It’s rare enough for horror heroes to outshine their monsters and it’s even rarer for two horror leads to showcase such incredible chemistry, to sell us a relationship that feels so lived-in. The casting of actors as fine as Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga is key here – they form the rock-solid core around which an entire movie can be built. They believe what they’re seeing, so we believe it. They’re unlikely performers to emerge as two of horror’s finest recent creations and that’s exactly why they work.

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A Pattern Emerges

Whether by accident or design, The Conjuring 2 echoes the basic shape of the first film. Like its predecessor, the sequel opens with the Warrens investigating a case that is seemingly unrelated to the main plot, an opening scene that serves to rattle the audience and establish a mood. Like James Bond, Ed and Lorraine get a quick pre-credits adventure to establish their bonafides right off the bat. In the sequel, it’s the haunting at Amityville (revealed through a brilliantly self-aware opening shot from behind those infamous windows) and you have to admire the nerve of Wan and screenwriters Carey Hayes, Chad Hayes, and David Johnson. They take one of the most famous haunted houses of all time, the most famous case of the Warrens’ career, and they relegate it to the opening moments. It take a lot of nerve to say “Amityville? Yeah, sure. But just wait until we get to the really scary stuff.”

Also like its predecessor, the film then proceeds to put Ed and Lorraine on the back burner for long time as we are slowly introduced to another family who are being menaced by a haunting. In this case, it’s the Hodgsons, a London family consisting of a single mother and four children who find themselves under assault by a violent ghost with mysterious motivations. While the film wisely cuts back to the Warrens just often enough to keep them in our minds, it’s impressive just how much screen time is granted to the Hodgsons. Like with the first Conjuring, we are allowed to understand the dynamic of the victim family and understand their predicament from their point of view. By immersing ourselves in their nightmare, the arrival of the Warrens deep into the film feels like the calvary riding to the rescue. Someone is here and they’ve brought answers. The presence of the Warrens is impactful because we’ve spent a good 45 minutes being immersed in a very-well made, albeit straightforward haunted house story.

The echoes continue. Ed and Lorraine investigate. They get to know the family. They help out around the house and attempt to restore normalcy. Other investigators, consisting of both believers and skeptics, join the fray. And then things get really bad and the identity of the threat is revealed and that seemingly unrelated case from the start of the film comes back in a big way to ensure that this isn’t just another case for the Warrens – it gets personal. They have to solve it for the family and for themselves.

Horror sequels following the same beats as their predecessors is nothing new. Normally this is a sign of laziness, evidence that the shepherds of the series want to replicate what works instead of breaking new ground or being adventurous in any way. However, the familiar structure of The Conjuring 2 feels less like cheap copy or more like a fresh coat of paint on a template that worked. The similarities feels not only intentional, but slightly cheeky. Wan has built a structure that can be endlessly riffed on without feeling tired. As long as the individual components function well, this particular piece of cinematic housing could host an ongoing series. And right now, I feel like I would gladly watch a new case from the Warren files every three years or so until everyone involved simply decided to give it all up

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