The horror genre has always been one of peaks and troughs, periods of great innovation and movies tempered with endless schlock and bad sequels ruining the terror their originals instilled.
For every true classic, there are 50 that are simply atrocious and 10 that are "good for a scare or two," for every Omen or Halloween, there is a Subspecies 4 (Radu sucks) or my personal favorite, Happy Hell Night (nooooo scares) to make you want to claw your own eyes out a la Sam Neill in Event Horizon.
Origins Of Terror
The horror genre was built on studios like Hammer Horror, making low budget but serviceable scary movies and arguably benefited from technology and innovation more than even sci-fi did. Mavericks like Tobe Hooper, George Romero, Tom Savini, Wes Craven, Rick Baker and David Cronenberg all helped to push the envelope of true terror. Gore was just part of it:
As a child, one of the first truly terrifying moments for me was Carrie going "postal," even as a 5-year-old, I knew what was coming and when it did it shook me. As an 8-year-old it was American Werewolf in London; I got that it was a comedy, but the transformation was so shocking that even hearing "Blue Moon" would freak me out and terrify me.
The truly most terrifying moment was reserved for college at age 17 and the "Illicit Movie Club" we had going during a long free period. The Exorcist was still banned in the UK, but we had a copy and watched it one day. It was boring, I needed a drink so I opened the door and two nuns were standing there! I slammed the door in sheer terror and watched the rest of the movie, only then noticing the little nuances that make it a classic. To this day I can't watch that film without seeing the subliminal images of Pazuzu's white face when I go to bed at night. I had a cousin who took his life by hanging, so "It's all for you, Damien" always resonated. Classic horror always takes you to places you don't want to go, but you can't resist going.
Gore vs. Scares
One of the biggest problems horror has faced since the '80s controversies that saw so many films banned (particularly in the UK) is that nothing can really live up to those classics, however hard they try.
There have been many good horrors released in the '90s and in this century, but few have had the genuine classic status enjoyed by those that came in the '70s and '80s. Many became parodies of themselves — even Scream, for all it's cleverness was not THAT scary. As gore levels and endless poorly made horrors and remakes rose, we became desensitized.
I saw the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre at age 4. Again, while still banned I noticed our local video store had a copy they'd put out by mistake, complete with photocopied cover. So I tried to rent it; the guy wouldn't let me, nor believe that a 9-year-old had seen it. That is, until I explained every death, including Franklin in the wheelchair and Leatherface cutting his own leg. He let me have it — and any movie I wanted thereafter. From that point few films ever really "got me" in the way of genuine fear or dread. It wasn't the gore-fest promised; it was different — scary but not as the legend said.
Some might occasionally gross you out like The Fly or might have some strong tension or a clever twist like Frailty, but in reality there hasn't been a true classic horror since Se7en in 1995! That's 21 years ago!
James Wan's Saw was very close, but was let down by the "twist for twist's sake" path that all horrors had taken at that time. It was clever and tense, but you knew a twist was coming (and that hurt the film). You definitely could see he "got" horror and how to build fear and both Insidious & The Conjuring showed this in spades.
Again a very, VERY good film, but not a classic. It had something on its side that worked better than many other films, it was based in reality.
The Real Ghostbusters
Lorraine & Ed Warren have long been controversial figures, often decried as charlatans but being among the most publicly known "Ghostbusters" in the real world. Traditionally ghost hunter types had either been the Van Helsing/Peter Cushing mold, priests played by big name actors like Max Von Sydow or Rod Steiger or bizarre characters like Tangina Barrons in Poltergeist.
The Conjuring was scary because you genuinely LIKED Ed and Lorraine as portrayed, their family and their world, terrifying as it was was one you want to enter. Their "Chamber Of Horrors," where the evil artifacts were kept was a place you'd want to go even if it meant your death. Using real life cases like Annabelle was also clever but the biggest plus was showing that these people COULD be charlatans. For story purposes they're not, but that they could be and getting themselves into big trouble was a major hook.
The movie performed extremely well, in no small part to the casting of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as the Warrens. More attractive than their real life counterparts but also two of Hollywood's more likable character actors, they could bring a sense of vulnerability that a bigger name couldn't. You buy them as being these people, having the skills they have and you REALLY don't want to see them hurt.
When the Annabelle spin off disappointed, there seemed to be a need for the Warrens to be back and The Conjuring 2 puts them right into the thick of the most documented cases of paranormal activity to chilling effect. Some mild SPOILERS ahead!
Panic On The Streets Of London
We start with the Warrens at the Amityville House and you immediately know this is not going to be a run of the mill adventure/sequel. There is real malice and dread from the earliest moments and even as the Warrens go about their lives afterwards, you know there is something serious afoot.
Meanwhile over in Enfield, North London, we meet the Hodgson's. Frances O'Connor's newly single mum is having a hard time with her kids, young Billy is being bullied due to his stammer, Margaret is on the cusp of womanhood, Johnny is just about to hit puberty and Janet... Well Janet is having some major problems... sleepwalking, nightmares and a friend who is leading her astray at school, getting her into smoking and Ouija boards.
Janet is the focal point of the story, she's clearly the most intelligent of the children, is older than her 11 years in terms of knowing how the world works and is already walking that line of being good or bad. That makes her initial reactions to the terror she faces all the more believable, she almost enjoys the attention at the start, that something unusual is happening in their otherwise mundane lives but quickly things take a very sinister turn and the whole family is in serious danger.
A Modern Classic?
The Conjuring 2 is the first genuinely scary film I have seen in years, not just jump scares or Wan's trademark blink and you miss the terror tracking shots. There is a real sinister tone to how the scares come, targeting the two youngest children and playing them off against their already fragile mother. One of the earliest scenes puts young Janet and the viewer into fear with the simple line "I'm playing a game with Billy" that put a real knot in my stomach. You then see said game and it is creepy as hell.
The genuine terror doesn't come immediately but once the family go for help it comes thick and fast. What could be just set piece horror is dragged out agonizingly, Wan takes his time to build the tension much as Carpenter did in Halloween and then pays it off with a real scare and more sense of dread that this is nowhere near the end of it, especially once it is clear that the Hodgsons can't escape simply by moving out.
Whereas Annabelle played a major part in the first movie, here we have the creepiest music box you have ever seen, and the films only misstep is some poorly realized CG around it. The idea? Terrifying. The execution? Not so much.
The movie is strong on showing the potential for this all being a hoax, including the Warrens themselves. Franka Potente, who I hadn't seen for years, pops up as the skeptic of the group (and for a time it really does appear all is not as it seems).
One scene in particular seems to show that things are going to be OK, Wilson picks up a guitar and channels Elvis and it could be It's A Wonderful Life (the movie is set near Christmas), but that is the entree to the final third where all bets are off and all hell breaks loose.
Facing your fears is a major theme of the movie and the Warren's must face theirs along with the Hodgsons This, and the antagonist demon are clearly story based for the movie but the concept itself is horrible. Whenever it's onscreen you feel not only terror but sick to your stomach.
If there is one scene that doesn't work, it's the final one, when everything is over and the Warrens are back home. It seems forced, almost a decompression scene for the audience. William Peter Blatty famously wanted one for The Exorcist but William Friedkin removed it... here Wan uses one and it's the only real downer on the film I could say, it could have ended in Enfield and not lost anything at all.
So, I said at the start this IS a classic...and it is.
It is up there with The Omen (1976), The Exorcist, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Wan has been building up to this for a long time, both Insidious and The Conjuring were close but this nails it. He gets every ounce of juice from his cast and every shiver out of the scares. Like the movies above, you care deeply for those involved, even the peripheral characters like the neighbors who could have turned a blind eye, yet cannot, even if they also cannot believe what is going on.
Frances O'Connor is excellent as Peggy Hodgson, already at her wits end when the film starts, she anchors her family and the viewer and is a very strong performer. Madison Wolfe is up there with Linda Blair, although she doesn't have to use the provocative language her predecessor did. Her performance is excellent, although I can't help but think her strong resemblance to early Emma Watson helped get her the role.
Of the leads, Patrick Wilson takes the plaudits this time out. Already one of the more likable actors out there, this time he really takes charge of the situation and makes Ed Warren a believable and likable guy, that others want to believe in.
Vera Farmiga as Lorraine is more deeply involved with the terror this time, as she has her own fears and issues to deal with. The aforementioned Elvis scene is her best, where she shows several emotions without saying a word, from love to pride to fear of loss and genuine terror.
Will The Conjuring 2 win awards? Probably not, although it wouldn't be beyond the realms of possibility for some nominations to come its way, particularly for Wolfe or O'Connor. What it will win however is that coveted "next classic horror" status that everything from It Follows to You're Next to The Babadook have promised but not quite delivered. In 20 years' time, 30 years' time, this movie will still be as scary as it is today. And that is justified praise.
Why Is Conjuring 2 Important?
First of all, it proves once and for all that you don't need to mine old properties, use tons of gore or twists to make a good scary movie.
The Conjuring 2 is doing great at the box office, proving that people DO want to be genuinely scared by a film rather than grossed out or relive their past, done less well than before. Indeed we're already seeing a spin-off of this movie, even if they did take a potential sequel out by showing Amityville in this one, there are many more cases the Warrens can face.
James Wan will not direct horrors forever, but he's shown here it can be done in 2016 as well, if not better than it was in the 80's and be an excellent film to boot.
Hopefully studios will green-light a few more original horrors from young directors, rather than churn out another remake of say, Jeepers Creepers or Halloween that they know will "hit a number" with a certain audience.
The tales of a haunted set and people dying while watching the film will only help build its legend and make people want to see more. Like with Enfield itself, these might be a hoax and part of a marketing ploy, but when the movie is this good, you don't need marketing ploys, fear takes over.