If you thought the conjuring in THE CONJURING was the only conjuring, you’re in for a big surprise, buddy. Because now there’s a THE CONJURING 2 and I gotta tell you, it is not about dealing with the repercussions of the previous conjuring. It is one or more totally new conjurings.
In case you get your 1-2 word title ghost franchises mixed up, THE CONJURING is the one by James Wan (DEATH SENTENCE, FURIOUS 7) that’s not INSIDIOUS. INSIDIOUS is the one that stars Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, THE CONJURING is the one that stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. They play the famous “real life demonologists” Ed and Lorraine Warren, who were involved with investigating most of the alleged ghost cases that have been made into movies other than CASPER, which they were not able to investigate due to a scheduling conflict. This chapter opens with them on the case that became THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, but is mostly about the one that became GHOSTWATCH.
The movie connects these two with a spirit that Ed and Lorraine are both having visions of and spooks Lorraine so bad she wants to quit the biz. She’s surprised when Ed makes a painting that looks just like the same entity she saw; I was surprised by the implication that she had never bothered to tell him “Yeah, it’s a nun with black around her eyes.”
Still, they’re convinced to go to the London suburb of Enfield to help out a single mother of three with weird shit going on in her house. This after a very strong Ed-and-Lorraine-less section depicting the different members of the family – mother Peggy (Frances O’Connor, A.I., WINDTALKERS) and four kids – separately encountering spooky shit, and their evolution from “there must be some explanation” to “we’re so convinced this is something supernatural that we’re willing to run screaming to the neighbors in the middle of the night” to “for crying out loud even the cops saw it, they just can’t do anything because there aren’t any laws against ghosts.”
Written by Wan with Carey & Chad Hayes (HOUSE OF WAX, episodes of Baywatch Nights) and David Leslie Johnson (ORPHAN), it has a pretty solid structure that mostly got past the “weird things happen, then it’s normal again with no consequences, then more weird things happen, repeat” formula that I don’t like about ghost movies. The things they figure out about the apparitions and their visions do build to a solution to the problem, and the emphasis on these square characters’ love for each other is pretty unique in movies, especially horror. Not many horror sequels would take the time to have the hero calm everybody by singing them an Elvis song, unless it was to set up a scare. This is just a character moment.
Or did that happen in SLEEPAWAY CAMP 3? I can’t remember.
Like all of Wan’s ghost movies, I started out thinking “This is one of the most effective ghost movies I’ve seen!” and ended thinking “I guess I just don’t really like ghost movies that much.” But it’s fun. Wan turns his usual bag of tricks upside down and spills out its contents, coming up with gimmicks and scares involving shadows, reflections, toys (of course), records, TV broadcasts, waking up on the ceiling. And there’s a character called “The Crooked Man” who’s like the Babadook meets Jack Skellington, and at one point pops his face in frame for a jump scare that kinda reminded me of Large Marge. The reality of the movie allows for both a cartoon character ghost like him and one that looks like Marilyn Manson in a nun’s habit.
Wan’s directorial prowess has escalated exponentially on this one. It looks beautiful – the house (inside and out) is especially well designed – and I was entranced by the ingenious camera moves. So many filmatists these days want their shots to look spontaneous and improvised, but I’m a sucker for the ones that seem like they were carefully charted out and diagrammed months in advance. It makes sense that this cinematographer, Don Burgess, was the director of photography for several Robert Zemeckis movies, including POLAR EXPRESS.
(Not relevant, but worth mentioning: he also shot BLIND FURY and the Fred Dryer movie DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR.)
That camera glides around and it’s willing to have De Palma-type patience or Raimi-type crazy energ,y but without ever feeling like it’s copping somebody else’s style. My favorite scene is when little Billy is walking through the house at night, steps on his toy fire truck and rolls it into the tent he has set up at the end of the hallway. The camera goes into his bedroom with him but keeps the tent in view so that we can stare at it for unbearably long, waiting for that damn fire truck to come back out. Even though it’s not a POV shot the camera keeps kind of hiding around the corner and then peeking back at the tent. And when it’s just out of view the tension is even higher.
I’m so excited about Wan’s direction that I’ve been trying to find somebody I think would like it more than me so I can recommend it to them. As impressed as I was, I just can’t seem to get past my distaste about the movie portraying real life exploitative scam artists like the Warrens as heroic pillars of integrity. If moviegoers want to be gullible and believe in phony magic bullshit as a “true story,” that’s one thing, but calling these people by name, showing their photos at the end, and celebrating them, is just too much.
This one even pushes it further with a scene where they go on a talk show and a guy who points out the actual truth that they are liars and phonies is treated as the bad guy instead of the voice of reason. And a plot twist where it briefly seems to have been a hoax perpetrated by the girls makes it clear that the writers aren’t stupid, they are very aware that everybody fucking knows that it was a hoax perpetrated by the girls. But they’re telling us with straight faces to believe that it was a real thing that happened. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse than DELIVER US FROM EVIL, where the director in interviews claims to really believe in his story of a cop who performs exorcisms on criminals.
Incidentally, the British researcher who was much more involved in the case and wrote a book about it does not speak too highly of the Warrens.
I don’t know. If only they used fake names for the characters maybe I wouldn’t find it so insidious and sinister, and be able to appreciate it for what it is: a stylish, clever movie with a very good cast, enjoyable period fashion and music, and a wide variety of imaginatively spooky imagery. I think it’s better than the first one, for what that’s worth. I look forward to Wan’s AQUA-MAN movie and I would be thrilled if he had another DEATH SENTENCE in him, not a big studio tentpole gig for hire but something he’s excited about that happens to not be a horror movie. For some reason it’s his non-horror movies that I like best. But he should do what he wants.
And to show that there are no hard feelings here is my treatment for THE CONJURING 3, I think this is a real good idea James you’re gonna love it.
THE CONJURING 3
TREATMENT BY VERN, September 2016
THE FOLLOWING IS BASED ON A TRUE STORY ABOUT THE GHOST IN THE MOVIE THREE MEN AND A BABY.
1990. In the cold open, ED AND LORRAINE WARREN are in London performing an exorcism on a British wolfman named WILLIAM RAMSEY. [NOTE: the book Werewolf: A True Story of Demonic Possession by Ed & Lorraine Warren takes place in 1983, but they were writing the book around this time, and transposing it to this time period would allow a wolfman to be in the movie]
Arriving home after the promotional tour that got them involved in that, they lovingly cuddle and agree to stop investigating the occult for a while because it is too spooky and what not. Ed will paint and they will live humbly off the proceeds of all of the movie deals they had no choice but to make in order to educate the public about the dangers of the spiritual world.
Their friend ROBERT DAVIS CHASE comes to visit and show them a video tape. It is of Ted Danson and Celeste Holm with a baby. He pauses it. In the background a small boy is peering through some curtains. Robert explains that this is the 1987 comedy hit THREE MEN AND A BABY, and that nobody involved can explain why a little boy is seen in the background of this scene. He says that there was a 9 year old boy who killed himself with a shotgun in the house where it was filmed.
At first Ed and Lorraine decline to get involved, but when Lorraine is examining the box to the VHS tape she notices that it is economically priced for sell-through, and is likely to infect every household in the United States with evil demonic mojo. The Warrens reluctantly come to agree that they have no choice but to once again be warriors for The Lord.
1990 MONTAGE. News footage of the demolition of the Berlin Wall. Operation Desert Shield. The Hubble telescope. Clips of The Simpsons and Twin Peaks. Milli Vanilli exposed. Mandela freed. The birth of Jonathan Lipnicki. Now we are seeing New York, and the camera is floating toward the scary house they will be investigating. It passes a movie theater with posters for GHOST. All this is set to “U Can’t Touch This.”
They meet the THE ROBINSONS, an ordinary middle class family dealing with mental illness, alcoholism and separation. The Warrens are relieved that they got there in time to protect them from any dishonest people who might try to take advantage of their severe family dysfunction and superstitious beliefs, which would be just awful. The Robinsons explain when they moved in they heard about the boy’s death, but didn’t think much of it until they started hearing him playing and laughing through the walls.
At night, Ed is walking around the house when suddenly he hears a popping sound, and then a spooky slide whistle. A radio has turned on by itself, fuzzily playing the 1990 hit “Groove Is In the Heart” by Deee-Lite. Suddenly he is startled by a bizarre voice and movement near his feet. He shines his flashlight and sees that it is only a Furby that has turned itself on.
There is all kinds of investigating and etc. that happens. In the attic Lorraine finds hundreds of drawings of a strange man with a mustache, who she believes is a malevolent spirit that possessed the boy and caused him to kill himself and now the boy’s spirit is crying out for help through the movie THREE MEN AND A BABY. She is convinced that if they do not free his soul by the release of THREE MEN AND A LITTLE LADY on November 21st then the house will turn into a portal that will attract all of the dark demons of such and such (some religious-ish shit from one of their books or whatever).
Also, menacing suits from Touchstone Pictures keep snooping around. Ed refers them to his agent but soon realizes they are not interested in the film rights to the inevitable THREE MEN AND A BABY book that the Warrens will have the responsibility to write to share what they have learned with the world. These guys seem to be trying to interfere as some sort of cover-up.
One night Ed and Lorraine are having dinner with the Robinsons when Lorraine suddenly starts uncontrollably quoting lines from Cheers. She just keeps going and not responding to Ed trying to stop her. She is having ONE OF THOSE FUCKING SCARY VISIONS where she is somewhere else, and she sees the Mustache Man from the drawings. He wraps his arms around her, and she tries to scream, but nothing comes out. In the real world she is sitting at the table, looking as if she’s having a seizure. Ed is asking her if she’s okay, and she’s whispering something. She keeps repeating it until he understands: “Release me. Release me.”
ED: Release you from what, honey?
IN THE SPIRIT WORLD Lorraine is still trying to pull away from the demon. She hears the CLICK of a tape deck. “Release me / Release me…” It’s AN EERIE, WARBLY CASSINGLE of the era appropriate hit “Release Me” by Wilson Phillips.
Then she snaps out of it.
Later, Ed discovers a hidden box of VHS tapes on which Mrs. Robinson recorded numerous episodes of Magnum P.I., and on the label there are drawings similar to the ones of the mustache demon. Ed realizes that those are not depictions of an apparition after all, they are just very poor drawings of Tom Selleck, who Mrs. Robinson is obsessed with. It seems that the woman has been lying to them to try to have a connection to the cast of THREE MEN AND A BABY.
They return home, disappointed. Robert calls and says he has someone he needs them to meet. “Trust me on this one.” He arrives at their home with a guest: THREE MEN AND A BABY DIRECTOR LEONARD NIMOY, played by Zachary Quinto. He explains that the movie was not filmed in a house at all, but on a soundstage in Toronto.
TORONTO, CANADA. The Warrens find the haunted soundstage. Here they will confront and exorcise the film’s primary ghost-tagonist: a child-sized Ted Danson wearing a top hat, like the cardboard standee in the movie that people mistook for a ghost child.
ED: Of course! That’s why you were quoting Cheers, and not POLICE ACADEMY or COCOON. The demon has chosen the form of Ted Danson wearing a top hat. But he is really small for some reason!
They find the pieces of the set in storage and rebuild it. There is a storm and lots of scary wind and lightning and things breaking and everybody is real intense. At one point Ed picks up the demon and it pees on him, one of many loving references peppered throughout the film to show that James Wan and collaborators are huge fans of the THREE MEN AND A BABY property.
Eventually they defeat the little Ted Danson guy in a really thrilling and exciting way and he is zapped through a portal in the fake window.
In the epilogue, the Warren’s reflect on their unbreakable bond as Ed puts the VHS tape of THREE MEN AND A BABY and his ticket stub to THREE MEN AND A LITTLE LADY on a shelf in the Museum of the Occult.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.