(On Cable TV, February 2016) The good news, I suppose, is that while The Conjuring 2 is significantly less impressive than its predecessor, the first film was so good that it makes its sequel a fair horror movie rather than a great one. Moving the action in England but keeping the first film’s focus on a family, our likable married heroes and a gradual cranking up of the tension (although the original’s lack of gore is instantly exceeded by a very violent opening dream sequence), The Conjuring 2 is more of the same, but less surprisingly so. Director James Wan is the star here, expertly moving the camera to show (or not show) elements crucial to the tension. The London-set poor-neighborhood is less inspiring than the first film’s farmhouse, and the broken family not quite as likable either, but you can see the script going back to the first film’s strengths whenever it needs a boost. The result may be far more ordinary, but at least it avoids sinking into exploitation or nihilism like so many other horror movies—there’s a core of sheer decency to the single mom trying to keep her family together and the heroic Warren couple (Both Vera Famiglia and Patrick Wilson are likable actors, and the Elvis scenes take their screen relationship to another level of sympathy), and it’s that kind of “this is why horrors are worth fighting” spirit that is all too often missing from cheap horror. This being said, while I was a vocal proponent of The Conjuring, I don’t expect to advocate for this sequel as much—it’s less of a surprise, of course, but it also looks as if it has a built-in public. I’m sure we’ll see a third film soon enough.
(On Cable TV, September 2016) Let’s be clear: Dead Silence is not a particularly good movie. Even as a horror film, it doesn’t reach high, contents itself with much of the usual claptrap of the genre and doesn’t leave much to ponder in terms of themes. After all: killer ventriloquist dolls? Oh, boy. But it does have a few things going for it: A slightly unusual structure in which revenge becomes a motivating driver; some very effective set design (that isolated theatre, in the middle of a lake … wow!), and a completely bonkers final twist that has to be seen to be believed. Screenwriter Leigh Whannell is on record as being dismissive of the result (there was, apparently, much studio interference), but director/collaborator James Wan does manage a few interesting things along the way—to a point where Dead Silence is a good choice for fans of his later movies such as the much-better The Conjuring. Again: It’s not good, but it certainly works well enough to warrant a look, especially if you’re expecting a merely mediocre horror film.
(On Cable TV, October 2014) The horror genre has a long history of great films leading to so-so sequels, and Insidious 2 is now part of that tradition. Insidious made a mark partly by being one of the first good American horror movie in a while that wasn’t trying to rely on found-footage tropes, and it heralded a number of similar or better movies in its wake, from Sinister to The Conjuring. Still, it wasn’t without its flaws, and this sequel seems to dwell at length on those less successful aspects while throwing in a number of old clichés. Oh, so a cross-dressing serial killer is the big bad guy of the series? Let me get my fainting salts. In overall impact, Insidious 2 cranks down the dial from Good to Average with far more conventional thrills and a familiar formula. (Keep in mind, though, that the titular “Chapter 2” is there for a reason: this is absolutely not a stand-alone sequel, and it is best seen immediately after the first film.) There are still plenty of things to like –including going back in time to explain goose-bumps from the first film, acknowledging its own absurdity with a well-placed “So that’s what it was all about”, an effective jump-shot explaining what the phantom piano-playing meant, and finding a more-than-adequate younger counterpart for Lin Shaye in Lindsay Seim. Shaye once again steals the spotlight during her short appearance, while Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne do what is expected of them (though Wilson has a harder dual role to manage). Meanwhile, director James Wan continues to perfect his technique: this follow-up is a bit less blunt in its scares than its predecessor. By the time the shock-ending title card rolls around, we’ve seen enough to be entertained, but not quite enough to be impressed: Insidious 2 gets credits for being an acceptable follow-up, but it’s far more ordinary that it should have been.
(On DVD, October 2014) Having missed Insidious in theaters, then on DVD, then on Cable TV even as its reputation grew as a good example of recent American horror, I found myself playing catch-up late at night, finally finding out for myself was the fuss was about. As it turns out, Insidious isn’t too bad, but director James Wan’s follow-up The Conjuring is a bit better and thus retroactively colors Insidious‘ impact. Both movies have similar starting points, with families in new houses being imperilled by demonic forces and semi-professional helpers coming to help them. But it’s the execution that counts, and while The Conjuring did well with a soft-spoken acceleration of horrors, Insidious is quite a bit blunter in how it marks scares with big musical stings. Much of the first hour feels conventional, as innocent people (and audiences) are progressively spooked by strange happenings. But there are hints that something weirder is at play, and by the time the last half-hour moves from haunted house to possessed bodies to astral travel, Insidious becomes interesting in ways that most horror movies third acts usually don’t. Still, that final half-hour is also in many ways the silliest, as the film’s ambitions run against its budget, and the literalization of some metaphors (coupled with a more frenetic rhythm) doesn’t quite work as intended. Once the monster is to be shown, part of the mystique disappears. Still, it’s quite a bit better than your average horror movie, and it benefits from a couple of good performances: Patrick Wilson is fine as the everyday-man protagonist with a secret, while Rose Byrne delivers exactly the expected as the suffering wife, but it’s really Lin Shaye who steals the spotlight as a paranormal expert who knows far too much. Effective scares and jumps and creepy hints all cleverly pepper the film, and the result is enjoyable. Still, in retrospect Insidious may be most noteworthy as a bridge to other better films, from Sinister to The Conjuring.
(On Cable TV, September 2014) There’s something to be said for a well-executed horror film even when it doesn’t try to reinvent the genre or leave the viewers with permanent trauma. So it is that The Conjuring harkens back to simpler times, when ordinary people were imperilled by supernatural horrors and extraordinary people could come to help them out. Here, the Perron family (two adults, five daughters) finds itself threatened by demonic forces shortly after moving into a dilapidated farmhouse in 1971. Financially desperate and concerned by increasing signs of evil, they call upon paranormal investigators to investigate and hopefully solve the case with minimal loss of life. It’s as basic a premise for a horror film as can be, but there’s a lot to be said for director James Wan’s approach to the material and the quality of the script: from the first few moments, The Conjuring is carefully controlled, beguiling in the way it sets up its characters, creepy in showing us the setting and well-accomplished in its visuals. We’re never comfortable, especially when the characters are so sympathetic. (Lili Taylor has a substantial role as the matriarch while Ron Livingstone plays dutiful husband, but it’s Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga who are most compelling as the Warrens, carefully inhabiting roles halfway between credible people and unflappable demon-hunters.) Like an un-ironic old-school classic, The Conjuring carefully ramps up its creepiness into chills into scares into full-blown horror… and remarkably enough without showing much gore, nudity or profanity. There’s nothing really new here (nor is there much in terms of thematic depth), but in horror even more than in other genres, execution is key and this film nails down the fundamentals. It works even better as an antidote for routine horror movies that fail to even provide the basic scares. Even the comforting finale is exactly what the film (and the characters) needed. Throw The Conjuring in with films such as Sinister and its prototype Insidious, and you’ve got a good argument for an ongoing revival of good American mainstream horror.