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Look, a Summer Movie That Actually Works

In praise of James Wan’s simple, satisfying ‘The Conjuring 2’

New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

I’m no expert on the subject (thankfully) but the worst ghost must surely be that of a 72-year-old dead man who, despite having all the frolics of hell at his discretion, sticks around above ground to hog the television, haunt the comfiest easy chair, and leave his dentures lying about after biting people with them. The second worst might be Marilyn Manson in a convent. Get you a horror movie that can do both? The Conjuring 2, for instance, which takes its titular digit quite seriously, with two spooks and about twice as many jump scares as the 2013 original — and made on a budget twice the size, to boot.

With a $40.4 million opening weekend, The Conjuring 2 is already a success, and that was a foregone conclusion: it’s a franchise movie by James Wan. As the director of Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring, and the recent smash Furious 7, Wan has proven himself quite the franchise whisperer. Saw spawned six sequels; Insidious, two (and a prequel!); The Conjuring, the current sequel and the spinoff Annabelle. Furious 7 was the highest-grossing film of its franchise, and — more importantly(?) — like most of Wan’s movies, it’s pretty good; a free-falling, ludicrous delight, the best-cooked version of a meal whose recipe will likely always taste good.

Wan’s movies are all made of the same basic stuff: good-enough actors and handsomely over-the-top plots put in service of precise, effective direction. His priorities are studio priorities. (Is it any wonder he was poached by Warner Bros. and DC Comics to helm the upcoming Aquaman? What took so long?) In the heat of this summer’s franchise fever, you might settle into the same romantic complaint about commerce’s chokehold on “original art,” but here comes Wan, again, delivering another wildly successful summer movie that exemplifies, if not incredible vision, the kind of tried, true, classically satisfying summer moviegoing that’s proving just as elusive as stark originality.

The Conjuring 2 is based on the infamous “Enfield Poltergeist” — Bill Wilkins, the aforementioned mean old guy — that made a mess of the English press in the late ’70s, in large part because it was widely decided to be a hoax. Wan sets up shop in the home of the Hodgsons, a fatherless, four-sibling family living in a tight and untidy council house in Brimsdown, of London’s Enfield county, where both sky and skin are ashen with cold and rain. The corners of the Hodgsons’ house are sootier than a Dickens orphan’s face — a ready-made spook fest that Wan milks for all (and possibly more than) it’s worth, gliding his camera in smooth, tight arcs that make every nook of the house feel like a revelation lies in wait.

It is a basic thing done very well, in many ways a pristine example of what Wan always shows up to do. He’s going to keep you anxious — nothing can feel totally stable when a camera never ceases to move. His ghosts are going to play simple games of peekaboo that wind up having Deeper Psychological Meaning. And much in line with Furious 7, his characters and script are going to remind us, more than once, that The Conjuring movies are movies about families: the loving pair of paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), whose most salient form of marital discontent is dead people, and the haunted families they help.

The Conjuring 2 is ostensibly a movie about a crisis of faith, but its ultimate subject might be Wan’s own faith in his sturdy bag of tricks. No crisis there — no need to change, really. He could breathe new life, greater invention into his movies. Does he want to? Does he need to? Have I mentioned that the movie is satisfyingly cheesy and horrific enough as is? Looking ahead (and behind!) on the summer calendar, it seems the well-made, simple pleasure is the exception, not the rule. Here’s a case for not trying to reinvent the wheel; when you’re this good, why not roll with it?