The Lulls Between Scares

It’s the moments between scares that separate a good horror movie from a great horror movie. How a movie like this chooses to bide its time when it’s not working to terrify you is vital. In so many cases, too many cases, it feels like your time is being wasted, like the movie is simply killing minutes until it can get back to the “good stuff.” The miracle of both The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 is that James Wan and his collaborators actually take this time to ask you to care about everyone on screen.

In both films, the arrival of Ed and Lorraine at the haunting is quickly followed by them attempting to restore the victims’ daily routines. The best way to battle an otherworldly threat is to retain as much of yourself as possible, they say. This means sequences set around the breakfast table, scenes where Ed assists with odd jobs around the house, and Lorraine getting to know the kids and helping act as the calm centering presence they so desperately need. These scenes not only endear us to the Warrens, who are presented on screen as genuine and sympathetic people, but they give us the enough time to meet and understand the people they are trying to help. The Conjuring and its sequel do something that precious few horror movies attempt: they ask us to give a shit about everyone on screen.

When the third act rolls around and things really go to hell for the Hodgson family, we have been given reason to care about every member of the family. Because we have spent so much time with their friendly neighbors across the street, their presence as allies feels like it matters. Simon McBurney‘s Maurice Grosse isn’t just another warm body present to help dump exposition, but a full-fledged character whose motivation has been explored and who has a reason to be there. In a film where the threat is often more spiritual than physical, this is vital – we can only care about the souls of these characters if we care about them.

The Conjuring 2 is scary and it delivers the roller coaster thrills and chills you’d want from it, but it’s also sweet and sincere and even a little goofy. Its characters are endearing and their conversations more than placeholder text on the way to the next jump scare. The amount of time spent getting to know everyone contributes to the film’s length and to that above-mentioned sense of bloat, but it ultimately feels like a fair trade-off. It’s better to care too much about the people in a movie that’s a little too long in the tooth, than to simply watch people you barely know survive a series of scares for 90 minutes.

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Ed and Lorraine: A Love Story

It turns out that James Wan has a bit of a sentimental side and it’s on full display in The Conjuring 2. Does a haunted house movie need a scene where one of the paranormal investigators breaks out a guitar and serenades everyone with some Elvis to help alleviate familial tension? No, it doesn’t. but I can also say that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a moment quite like that one in a horror movie. Watching Patrick Wilson croon “Fools Rush In” is what separates this movie from the rest of the pack. It’s sweet and a little silly and blissfully humane. Most importantly, it informs the most important aspect of both Conjuring films – the relationship between Ed and Lorraine and just how much these two love another.

I’ve already touched on why these two are so appealing. Their competence in the face of danger and the professionalism they bring to situations where everyone around them has been frayed down to the bone is exquisitely entertaining. However, they are truly endearing characters because their partnership feels deeper than a working relationship. The Conjuring 2 isn’t content to just say these two are married and then treat them like co-workers. They are clearly, deeply in love with one another, so comfortable in one another’s presence that the film doesn’t even try to generate false conflict between the two of them in the name of drama. They are comfortable with one another. They talk through their issues. They’re honest and reasonable. Wilson and Farmiga make standard domesticity compelling, because a depiction of a genuinely happy marriage between two people who operate on the same wavelength is rare in any movie. That this standard domesticity exists within a movie that is wall-to-wall with ghosts and demons makes the fact that they’re a fairly “boring” couple inherently interesting.

It’s telling that The Conjuring 2 doesn’t end with one final jump scare to send the audience out screaming. It ends with Ed and Lorraine dancing in each other’s arms, home and safe. The victory isn’t that they have saved another family from a demonic presence – the victory is that their relationship remains as intact and as solid as ever. It’s hard to recall any mainstream horror movie caring so deeply about its characters. It’s hard to recall many horror movies in general that are ultimately about the power of family and the strength of love. Hokey? Sure, maybe a little. A welcome change of pace from a genre that tends toward the nihilistic? You betcha.

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