Startlingly meh: The Conjuring 2 (review)

conjuring 2 poster

I don’t really have the stomach for horror films. It’s not so much that I scare easily, but rather I am incredibly jumpy and therefore startle easily…and I don’t enjoy that sensation.

That being said, I have an idea for a horror film and decided I really needed to watch some before trying to write one. Thus, I finally acquiesced to my friends’ attempts to get me into a theatre, and last night, saw The Conjuring 2.

In many ways, including the opening scenes, this movie is a grandchild of the paranormal investigation classic The Amityville Horror. In the same timeline as that “based on” true event, a family in North London is being haunted by the spectre of an old man who is quite literally turning their lives upside down. The church sends American investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren to determine the merits of the case, only to discover it is linked to haunting visions in their own lives.

Lots of booming, thrashing and screaming ensue. Faces suddenly appear over shoulders. Bodies fly around rooms. More screaming. Demons, crucifixes and biting, oh my.

You can probably tell from that last part that I wasn’t very enthused about the movie. And to a large extent, I blame that on me more than the movie. I just don’t like horror and I don’t like being startled, which is really all this movie was: a two-hour effort to make me jump. Even at that, I think I jumped about six times and was never horrified or even mildly disturbed.

My friends were more effusive in their praise. One said it was the best horror film he had ever seen; he had never been more frightened. Others said it was a solid horror film that they quite enjoyed, although almost universally they said it wasn’t as disturbing as the original The Conjuring, which they insist I watch.

The story was pretty linear. Sceptics vs believers. Haunted, possessed child with glowing eyes and altered voices. Spectral specialists who speak wooden dialogue about God while dealing with their own demons. And underneath it all, an adorable love story between the real-life Warrens that went nowhere and added nothing to the story.

Twin warrens

Lorraine & Ed Warren: real and as portrayed by Vera Farmiga/Patrick Wilson

If you can get past the dialogue, the performances weren’t too bad. Patrick Wilson (Ed Warren) and Vera Farmiga (Lorraine Warren) do what they can with relatively two-dimensional Bible thumpers. Frances O’Connor, who played British mom Peggy Hodgson, did a very admirable job of portraying a woman who has taken about all she can from a world determined to crap on her at every turn. This could easily have been two hours of her screaming insanely, but she brought realism to the role.

But my biggest praise goes out to Madison Wolfe, who played Janet Hodgson, the young girl through whom the spectre works its evil. Half victim, half conduit, Janet’s struggles first to understand what is happening to her and then cope with feelings of abandonment as her friends and school become terrified of her (rather than the evil) are heart-breaking and play out across the young actress’s face. A true example of where a performance rises far above terrible material.

Janet

So many questions in those eyes

Unfortunately, even the stellar performances of O’Connor and Wolfe cannot save a bad movie that looks and feels like so many of its genre. That it is based on a true story—the Enfield poltergeist—doesn’t make it any more real for me; it may mean more to people wrapped up in poltergeist lore.

The slide show of the actual event participants during the closing credits, however, is an interesting touch. If nothing else, it tells me the set designers did a good job.

So, by the end of the evening, I wasn’t really any further ahead in my understanding of horror films and if this is an example of what is available, no more inclined to take in other films of this genre (or at least, sub-genre).

 

See also:

The Conjuring 2 fails to raise goosebumps. Bruce Demara, The Toronto Star

The demon-hunting Warrens are back in The Conjuring 2. Richard Crouse, Metro News

The Conjuring 2 is gorgeously shot and smartly conceived. Brad Wheeler, Globe & Mail

 

I am always right (motivation)

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If I move into a beautiful New England home with my beautiful family and on our first night, the walls run red with blood and a disconnected voice cries “Get out!”, I go to a hotel and move the next day.

I do not search for an explanation (or at least not that night). I do not instinctively head for the dusty attic, the dank dark basement or that rather nasty looking shed under the menacing weeping willow in the darkest corner of the back yard.

So when I read about characters doing just that in a novel or screenplay or watch actors do it at the movies, I find myself thinking they deserve whatever comes next because they are idiots. What the hell motivated them to have that stupid response? Out of the gate, I disconnect from the character.

Now, despite the title of this blog post, I am not suggesting that only my instincts should be followed in screenplays, novels, etc.—these would be damned short stories if everyone did—but rather it is a call to writers to help me, as a reader or viewer, understand why the character behaved the way he or she did. Until I do, I cannot really bond with the character.

This isn’t easy, but it is necessary.

Whenever a character responds to something or takes an action, you have to ask yourself, why did he or she do that? And over the course of your story, are all of that character’s choices consistent with his or her personal journey from before your story’s opening to its conclusion?

And as if that isn’t difficult enough, you then have to ask yourself, have I written the story in such a way that the audience can see the logic of the choices, even if only in hindsight?

This last point is crucial, because as writers, we often know or understand things about our characters that never make it to the page. Thus, while everything may seem completely consistent and logical to us, it may still be confusing to our audience, who is not privy to the machinations within the head of the writer god.

At the same time, you never want to spell it out for the audience, because then story reading or watching becomes too passive an exercise and the audience doesn’t engage. You need to feed your audience just enough information that it can begin to make inferences about your characters’ behaviours and so become connected with your characters.

The good news is that this is unlikely to happen in your first draft or at best, will happen in drips and drabs.

As you develop your story past draft one, you will find moments of inconsistency or more likely, your trusted readers and advisers will find inconsistencies. Take those in and mull them over. Odds are, fixing those issues will not require a major refocus of your story…just a heavy-brush rewrite. And your story will improve.

So if the walls run red with blood, a disconnected voice cries “Get out!” and your protagonist doesn’t, I better understand why.

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