Movie Review: “The Conjuring 2″

Starring
Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Lauren Esposito, Simon McBurney
Director
James Wan

Horror sequels like “The Conjuring 2” are a dime a dozen, but director James Wan’s sequel manages to capture the spirit of the first film – hitting some familiar beats along the way – and takes the series and its two protagonists in a chilling new direction. What stands out about this franchise is that it’s not so much the scares that draw you in, although Wan does accomplish that, but rather its lead characters the Warrens.

The sequel begins with a new case – the famous Amityville incident – which screenwriters Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes, David Leslie Johnson and Wan only touch on briefly to give the audience a sense of where the characters are at in their careers and, rather seamlessly, efficiently establish a new internal and external threat in the film. Most of Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren’s (Vera Farmiga) journey takes place in Enfield, England, where the Hodgson family is under attack from evil spirits. One of Peggy’s (Frances O’Connor) children, Janet (Madison Wolfe), is possessed by the spirit of Old Bill (Bob Adrian), a man that wants his home back. Although most believe the case is a hoax, Ed and Lorraine are willing to take a chance on the desperate family.

This sequel wisely puts a face to the villains. They’re more tangible, have identities and pose a greater threat. They’re all genuinely frightening, too, whether they’re seen or not. Wan waits for the right time to reveal his team of evil spirits, but the most effective depiction of one of the villains comes in a fantastic, seamless long take. As Ed tries to reason with Old Bill, who’s obscured in the background of a shot as Ed has his back to him, Wan and cinematographer Don Burgess capture the tense interaction all in one long take that slowly zooms, making the audience tighten up as the frame does. It’s a remarkable take – a slow burn of a shot that isn’t showy.

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Movie Review: “Annabelle”

Starring
Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton, Tony Amendola, Alfre Woodard
Director
John R. Leonetti

If “Annabelle” had any sense of when to let up on the throttle, it could have been one of the truly great horror movies of the past few decades. Instead, it chooses to mentally exhaust the audience by turning every single thing on screen into a weapon of one form or another, and it ramps up the already unnecessary tension with sound design that turns a sewing machine into a thunderstorm. It makes sense, in a way: they’re trying to make the audience as paranoid as the protagonist, but the one thing that “The Conjuring,” the film in which evil doll Annabelle made her feature debut, did so well was balance the light with the dark. “Annabelle” is nothing but darkness, and a lot of that darkness is been-there-done-that darkness. Indeed, the story line is largely borrowed from “Rosemary’s Baby,” with nods to “The Omen,” “Witchboard,” and even “Poltergeist.” Those are good to great sources, but Annabelle deserved a story of her own, not one stitched together from the carcasses of others.

Set in California one year before the opening scene of “The Conjuring,” Mia (Annabelle Wallis. Yes, the lead actress in this movie is named Annabelle, God love her) and her husband/doctor-in-training John (Ward Horton) are expecting their first child. Soon after we meet John and Mia, their next door neighbors the Higgins are murdered by their daughter Annabelle, now a member of a satanic cult. Annabelle and her accomplice friend try to kill John and Mia as well, but are not successful. Annabelle kills herself in their nursery, holding one of Mia’s porcelain dolls. Annabelle’s blood spills into the eye socket of the doll. The doll, naturally, is now a conduit to evil.

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Movie Review: “The Conjuring”

Starring
Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, John Brotherton
Director
James Wan

The strange thing about horror movies of the last 10 years is that they’ve rarely been scary. They’ve been grotesque – take, please, “Evil Dead” from earlier this year – but few of them have been legitimately frightening. “The Conjuring,” on the other hand, understands that violence is not horror, and delivers a truly disturbing viewing experience. It may use a little Hollywood pixie dust to make it to the finish line, but the pre-Hollywood psychodrama is positively chilling, and the use of old-school techniques only adds to the creep factor.

It’s the fall of 1971, and Roger and Carolyn Petton (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor), along with their five daughters, are moving into an old farm house in Rhode Island. From the very beginning, the place seems a little off (the dog won’t go in the house, the basement is boarded up), but the family puts up with all of the seemingly unrelated annoyances (cold, the occasional foul stench, youngest daughter April’s new imaginary friend) and attributes it to, well, something rational, something explainable. It is not long, though, before the “house” ramps up the offensive, and an exasperated Carolyn asks local paranormal researchers Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) to come to the house and evaluate their problem. Lorraine, a clairvoyant, gets bad vibes from the very beginning, and after doing a little research on the former homeowners, she is fearful for the lives of the entire Perron family, Carolyn in particular.

Screenwriting twins Chad and Carey Hayes wrote the script of their lives here – though to be fair, one look at their IMDb profile and you’ll see that that is a backhanded compliment – by framing the ‘A’ story (the Perrons) and the ‘B’ story (the Warrens) side by side until such time that the families can come together organically. It’s a shrewd move, because it gives the audience the occasional, much-needed break from the terror that the Perrons are suffering, while slowly allowing the audience to get to know the Warrens and the, um, ghosts of their past that they bring with them to this case. That, plus Wan’s refusal to resort to the cheap ‘boo’ scare, gets the audience emotionally invested early, and never lets them go.

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