Friday, 1 July 2016

Old haunts: "The Conjuring 2"

2013's The Conjuring was a rattly old horror junkshop, repackaging some of the haunted-house gotchas of the Exorcist, Amityville and Poltergeist movies without the knowing tongue-in-cheek humour of 2010's Insidious, but with a deadening veneer of "based on true events" period authenticity that derived from taking real-life exorcists Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) as its subjects. With the film's real breakout star - porcelain devil doll Annabelle - having broken ranks by appearing in her own 2014 vehicle (shortly to spawn its own sequel), the Warrens have had to be inserted altogether inorganically in the dopily obligatory follow-up The Conjuring 2, which expands outwards to spend its - count 'em - 134 minutes in the England of the late 1970s, picking over a case it's not entirely clear the Warrens had anything to do with in actuality.

The originality bar is established early on with the laying of The Clash's "London Calling" over shots of red buses passing over Westminster Bridge; returning director James Wan then whisks us off to Enfield - or a studio approximation of same - where gor-blimeying single mother Frances O'Connor and her unruly offspring find themselves repeatedly bothered by a cranky old spook who wants his semi-detached house back. This is the same Enfield haunting that formed the basis of the recent Sky One drama that starred Timothy Spall as local psychic investigator Maurice Grosse (nicely played here by a squirrelly Simon McBurney); the Warrens are so disconnected from it - literally half a world away, reintroduced getting the events of Amityville out of their heads - you begin to wonder whether Warner Bros. didn't just cast around for an unrelated script that might be reworked to tie in with the series, much as Paramount did to extend the Cloverfield franchise. (Honestly, these Americans, coming over here, exorcising our ghosts.)

Like a lot of 2016 studio propositions, The Conjuring 2 is too big to fail - it spent its first two weeks atop the UK box office, and was still playing to half-full screens by the time I caught up with it in the third - but it's also too big for its own good. Pumping some of the vast amount of money the first film took back into the second gives O'Connor's brood the most unconvincing of West London semis: modest from the outside, it suddenly assumes Tardis-like dimensions once we're inside (which is to say on the studio floor), replete with vaulted ceilings, a couch the size of a battleship, and a heaving platter of cartwheel-sized biscuits with which to tempt non-spectral viewers. (The biscuits really threw me off: they make 1970s Wagon Wheels look like 21st century Wagon Wheels.) At times, the location resembles Thatcher's Enfield less than it does 18th century Versailles: if the clan really did have all this money to play with, why didn't they put it towards repainting the walls, which run the grotty gamut from mildew-green to Babadook-black? Really, they're just inviting trouble.

This disconnect between interior and exterior spaces goes to the heart of what's wrong about the sequel, which takes a milieu howling out for scratchy social realism - and a treatment along the lines of 2012's unusual Brit chiller When the Lights Went Out - but over-inflates it so the camera can perform slick rollercoaster loops around the sporadic paranormal activity. This cranked-up framing feels absurd even before characters start to get freaked out by Tonka trucks, or Ed - displaying a creative bent unseen in the first film - is found at the easel doing a nice watercolour of one spook, or puts his crucifix down to pick up a guitar and serenade O'Connor's offspring with his best Elvis impersonation. (We're bordering on Airplane! territory here.) As give-'em-(more of)-what-they-want fodder, it has its functional moments: there's a reasonably clever sequence involving a ghost and Ed's painting, though even this goes on long enough to devolve into loud dream-sequence crashes and bangs, no more than first-half timekilling before the Warrens can be delivered to Enfield.

Throughout, the mechanics are too obvious - too in your face - to allow The Conjuring 2 to develop any sense of the uncanny or unsettling: it doesn't so much creep up behind us as plonk itself in front of us like the Tango man, slapping us over and over around the chops. The subtlest work is done in one boo scene involving a television switching itself on and off (very Poltergeist), where we get a flicker of The Goodies (you can well imagine Graeme Garden's sideburns prompting a form of terror in impressionable viewers), and a flash of Maggie T assuming office. It's not unfeasible that Wan is trying to link the onset of these heebie-jeebies to Thatcherism - though it's just as likely another of the throwaway period markers strewn like confetti across these sets, like the perfectly folded copy of the Melody Maker adorning the living room table. (Who in this household would read it?) More symptom of consumer capitalism than credible diagnosis or possible cure, it's flabby, noisy, gassy product, broadly as spooky and lasting as a bad case of flatulence sparked by a can of own-brand beans.

The Conjuring 2 is still playing in cinemas nationwide.

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