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Bigger, Louder, Longer

The Conjuring 2 is 134 minutes long, a good 45 minutes or so longer than your average horror movie. The first Conjuring was already long for this kind of movie at 112 minutes and the sequel doubles down its length. For better and worse, The Conjuring 2 doesn’t feel the need to fit in that lean 90-minute box that is so common for scary movies. It’s one of the more indulgent horror movies in recent memory.

On the negative side, you can feel those extra minutes hanging off the film, slowing the pace and causing the film to enter a few lulls that simply aren’t present in brisker horror movies (where there is literally no time for things to slow down too much). The Conjuring 2 feels as long as it is and it’s a bit of a butt-numbing experience. This would probably be a better film if it was twenty minutes shorter and this sense of bloat is what keeps it from being quite as good as part one, which barrels forward with abandon at every possible moment.

In fact, every element of The Conjuring 2 is simply bigger than the first film. It’s not just longer: the scares are grander, the threats more significant, the ghosts more extravagant, and the set pieces more reliant on visual effects. You can tell that this is a haunted house movie made by the same man who just made Furious 7 – Wan added a number of new tricks and tools to his arsenal and he’s more than happy to utilize them here. This may be the loudest horror movie to come along in quite some time.

And yet, this plus-sized and bombastic take on familiar territory is also weirdly refreshing. This kind of movie is generally made on a budget, produced for pennies by filmmakers who have to think up clever solutions to their storytelling problems because they often don’t have the cash to fully realize a concept. Wan himself is no stranger to this. Just look to Saw and Insidious to see him battling his budget to create something effective. The Conjuring 2, which arrives after his previous film made over a billion dollars at the international box office, finds him working with a budget that is twice the size of the original Conjuring. Wan has the clout to command larger budgets, which means he can create horror movies that don’t need to look or feel cheap. Even when this film feels a little bloated and a little sluggish, it’s undeniably polished and slickly made by a filmmaker who has finally been given the money to go all-in on his grandest ideas.

The climax of The Conjuring 2 finds Wan’s old and new sensibilities colliding in unexpected ways. It’s still very much a horror sequence, as Patrick Wilson’s Ed navigates a hostile and haunted home after being partially blinded by steam, but it operates on the level of a major summer release. The house crumbles as each jump scare tears walls apart. The arrival of demonic forces cause theater seats to shake as the speakers are tested within an inch of their lives. There’s action movie language at work here, especially as Ed and a young victim dangle from a window and Lorraine rushes to the rescue. Horror movies are usually content to be small, to deliver simple thrills and call it a day. Horror movies rarely feel like this. The length and scope of The Conjuring 2 is a blessing and curse – James Wan believes that horror can be big, that it can be grand, and that it can operate on a wilder and more ambitious plane. The film bites off more than it can chew, but there’s something admirable about that.

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The Art of the Jump Scare

The most important thing about The Conjuring 2 is that it’s frightening. A few good scares can go a long way toward forgiving a movie’s other sins and if there is one thing James Wan is good at, it’s delivering a few good scares. In fact, the sheer length of this film means that it includes more terrifying moments than most other horror movies by default – there is simply more time to deliver more set pieces built around scaring the crap out of you.

Anyone can create a jump scare. You have something suddenly enter the frame and you include a sting on the soundtrack and an audience will jolt in their seats though sheer surprise. Something unexpected happens and the body reacts. But James Wan knows that the best jump scares aren’t about that final physical jolt. That’s the pay-off, the release of tension. Once it happens, the scare is over and the audience resets as they momentarily relax. So Wan builds to that jolt, taking great pleasure in pushing sequences to their breaking points and pushing our personal buttons. He knows that we know something is coming. He fills his frame with distractions and dead spaces, forcing us to search every frame for the threat that we know is coming. His camera treats us like prey. We know we’re being hunted and he allows us to see as much as possible, panning across rooms and cutting back and forth from various angles, setting us up with a false sense of security because that hallway or that closet is clearly empty.

But that’s the greatest trick in Wan’s toolbox. His monsters don’t exist in the spaces we can see – they exist in the empty space between cuts. His ghosts and his demons do not follow the rules of the physical world. If anything, they are aware of the fact that they’re in a movie. They enter the frame at the most unnatural moments because they can, because Wan gives them the freedom to manipulate our perception. There isn’t a single shot in The Conjuring 2 that feels like an accident. Wan knows where to place his camera to keep to keep us off-guard and, more importantly, he knows where to place his camera when he wants to put us on-guard. He knows how we watch movies and he uses that to his advantage. The tension is so unbearable that we beg for something to happen, for the release that comes with the scare that we all know is coming. That’s the real magic trick.

The Conjuring 2 is frequently frightening, but two scenes stands out in particular several days after having seen the movie. In one, Lorraine Warren, having seen a blasphemous demon in her own home, follows it to her husband’s office and finds herself stalked in the shadows as the creature takes advantage of a painting on the wall to hide in plain sight. The scene is unbearably long, with Wan inviting us to look into every corner of the room even though that painting, hovering over Lorraine’s shoulder, serves as a constant reminder that something is right behind her in every single reaction shot.

In the other, Ed Warren interrogates a presence that has inhabited a young girl with his back to his subject. Wan films this interview in one long take, keeping the camera in close-up on Patrick Wilson’s face while his subject sits in the background, out-of-focus. We don’t even notice when the blurry shape of the young girl transforms into a blurry shape of a decrepit old man. Unlike the sequence with the painting, there is no big sting here, no final burst of terror. There is only the lingering sense of wrongness…and we’re forced to carry that unease into other scenes without release.

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