Being in Japan has made it harder to stay up to speed on major horror releases. There are exceptions: I did get to see Sadako vs. Kayako probably before any of you all did (hah!), and I’ve been fortunate enough to get access to some great films, books, and comics via HorrorTalk.com. (Did you know I wrote for them too? I write for them too! Look at this thing I wrote!). I also got to see Lights Out during a brief trip back to the US in July. But I’ve mostly been missing this supposed bumper crop of mainstream horror I’ve been hearing so much about.
But have I been missing it, really? See, those italics there, they indicate a double entendre, if you will, a sassy bit of irony–because, you see, I’m an ass.
We finally got around to watching The Conjuring 2, which currently has a stunning 80% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, 7.7/10 on IMDB, and 4.5/5 on Amazon. I’ll tip my hand early here and say that, as predicted, I thought this film was mediocre (and that’s generous). Like, really mediocre. Why do people seem to love it so much? To find out, I asked veteran horror fan and self-appointed critic, me, about his impressions of the film. Let’s go over to me in the newsroom for more.
The movie follows the continuing misadventures of the Warrens, to wit, Ed and Lorraine. She’s a psychic, he’s a “demonologist.” (He has a higher degree in demonology. I really missed the boat.) They go to England to investigate the (actually happened, almost certainly a hoax) Enfield Poltergeist case. Spooky stuff happens, there’s an apparent possession, a demonic nun makes hissy sounds, hilarity ensues, day is saved. We’ve seen it all before. (Except this time around Patrick Wilson sings Elvis, because every demon fighter can croon. It’s their version of walking away from an explosion.)
The acting is lamentably meh. Vera Farmiga seems extremely tired as Lorraine Warren, as if she can’t believe she’s back in this role. She’s barely able to conjure up (LAUGH) emotions appropriate to the ghostly events. Patrick Wilson is, as always, likeable, if one-dimensional, as Ed. None of the other performances have enough depth (or screen time) to note, except perhaps that of Madison Wolfe, who plays young Janet Hodgson. She gives a decent performance, but she gives it as the possessed-but-innocent child we’ve seen a thousand times before and adds nothing new to the role.
I know virtually nothing about either the Enfield case or the Warrens–I think, like most people, I first heard of the Warrens from the original Conjuring film–so I’ll forgo commenting on either. But as a film, there’s nothing exciting here, nothing we haven’t seen before, and absolutley nothing scary. There’s a good bit of awful CG, a pointless and laughable “Crooked Man” entity that gets shoehorned in for no discernible reason, and a demonic nun which is linked in the film–get this–to the Amityville murders. The film basically suggests that Amityville and Enfield were part of the same ongoing supernatural event. You guys with your Interwebs probably knew all about this already, but I went in mostly blind, and this is the most eye-roll-inducing reference I’ve seen in a long time.
And the nun is stupid. It’s stupid, you guys. CG shark’s teeth and hissing and running around like a crazy person? That scares you? Then might I advise you to WATCH OUT FOR THE-
More egregiously, the nun is totally interchangeable with other baddies from similar films, from the demon in Annabelle, to the, er, other demon in the first Insidious (not to mention the old lady bride ghost, or whatever), to the death metal/The Crow guy in Sinister. This time it’s “Valak,” which I guess is a slightly better name than freaking Bughuul, but it’s basically just a new skin on the same villain we’ve seen any number of times before. (Did you see the Daniel Radcliffe Woman in Black? Or the sequel?) The nun is not scary, or interesting, and certainly not worth making a whole goddamned spinoff for.
(Incidentally, the Bloody Disgusting article linked above claims that the nun was added to the film in the last minue. Maybe that explains why it is so freaking awful and stupid and I hate it.)
Granted, “scary,” like everything else, is subjective. Maybe you have a nun thing. Maybe a habit, dark eye makeup, hissing, bad oil paintings, and shark’s teeth remind you of a very, very specific childhood trauma. But surely not everyone remembers the Great Nunshark Massacre of ’07 as clearly or as intimately as you do, poor child.
And yet, The Conjuring 2 has had, as of this writing, the 10th most successful domestic theatrical run for a horror film. (The same site puts the original Conjuring at #5.) Why in the world do people love this film so much?
I don’t have any evidence to back this up–what am I, a professional film critic?–but I suspect that people love it for the same reason they love Insidious and a number of similar films from James Wan and/or Blumhouse Productions (Sinister, Paranormal Activity, Oculus, Annabelle): because it does not challenge them in any way, not in terms of its structure as a film, its specific “horror” content, its social or political messages (such as they are), or on any other level. The Conjuring franchise and all the others I just named are horror junk food: convenient, absolutely consistent, comforting. And importantly, for the studios, you can’t eat just one.
Really, while it sounds like I’m dumping all over the film and the studio and you kids today and your touch computers and your Tweets (and partly I am doing that), I’m also not doing that, because I’m an awesome guy.
I’m willing to admit, for example, that it can be fun to know precisely when the next “scary” thing will happen: it adds a certain Christmas-like anticipation. You know when it’s coming, almost to the second, and waiting for it is kind of exciting (even if the “scare” itself is a total letdown). And perhaps it’s fun for some people to watch a scary movie that isn’t really scary, particularly for people who don’t really define themselves as genre fans.
Even this year’s Lights Out, on which Wan was a producer and which I enjoyed well enough, followed the same basic patterns, telegraphed its scares, and felt very much a part of the recent trend in stripped-down Halloween-haunt-style horror films. By this I mean the stories basically consist of scary vignettes strung together by brief expository scenes, just like going through a staged haunted house. One scary setpiece to the next. [Edit: I used basically the exact same words to describe the first one. Swear to god I didn’t even realize it.]
The Conjuring 2 and its ilk are popcorn films, mindless entertainment with telegraphed jump scares and the most basic of basic plots, and that’s what people want from mainstream horror. And that’s okay. They’re not for me, but if people like them, I’m not in a position to judge. I hope filmmakers like James Wan will keep making movies and keep getting horror films on the blockbuster lists (and with his batting record there’s no reason for him to stop).
But I’m just not buying that these films are good films. They’re fine. They’re perfectly enjoyable in their way. But they’re not 10th-best-domestic-gross-of-all-time good, are they?
(No. Is the answer.)