The Conjuring 2 opened two weeks ago to high praise and even higher box office grosses. The film has now grossed nearly 200 million dollars worldwide, which is seriously impressive for an R-rated horror film. It still has a ways to go to catch up to its predecessor, but it’s nice to see adult-oriented horror films doing well at the box office. The critical reaction to the films, however, is troubling. And this higher-budget sequel, while improving on the first film in several ways, comes off terribly silly when it’s trying to take horror seriously. Fellow horror geek and Fan Contributor Drew Dietsch joined me to discuss how The Conjuring 2 misses its mark.
TRAVIS NEWTON: Months before James Wan’s The Conjuring became a box office smash, the buzz on the film was sky-high. Test audiences were loving it, and early reviews were just as positive. Those reactions were part of why Warner Bros. decided to unleash the film during summer when movie attendance is at its peak, but the odd weekend still needs a deftly placed bit of counter-programming. The Conjuring, an R-rated horror film, took home the number one spot in its opening week during the height of blockbuster season. The Conjuring 2 has performed similarly well with critics and audiences, but it shares something else in common with the first film: it’s not particularly good.
DREW DIETSCH: As far as being a strong horror film, it’s not good. But that’s coming from two guys who devour a plethora of all kinds of horror films. You and I understand that there’s always been and always will be some niche element to the genre. The Conjuring and its sequel are aiming for a wider audience. They want us, but they also want the same crowd that goes to Transformers films. That necessitates making things as uncomplicated as possible. But if some horror films are to compete with event films on the level of something like Independence Day: Resurgence, is that going to be an unavoidable compromise?
NEWTON: Well, I don’t think horror will ever make as much money as PG-13 sci-fi action blockbusters simply because a lot of people just don’t like being scared at the movies. But when horror movies are looking to compete with blockbusters, I don’t think the quality compromise is unavoidable. The Shallows, which was pushed up last minute to compete alongside the massive Independence Day sequel, is a PG-13 shark attack film that not only takes itself seriously but earns the right to do so. It also balances niche elements and genuine horror with a glossy, crowd-pleasing style. Will The Shallows make Conjuring money? I doubt it, but I admire the fact that The Shallows is updating a horror subgenre that has long been seen as pure schlock. The Conjuring films, on the other hand, take a hugely popular subgenre (possession horror) and dress it up with an overwrought directorial style.
DIETSCH: Is that a side effect of the perceived lack of strong direction in the genre after Paranormal Activity? The found footage boom seemed to exalt the often cheap nature of horror films, and The Conjuring felt like a conscious refutation of that mindset. Granted, there are certainly well-made found footage films, but the format is one that wears its low budget on its sleeve. The Conjuring and its sequel look like expensive studio films, and it’s possible that that is one of the reasons audiences and critics have been so supportive of them. One of the reasons so few horror films break into the mainstream is because audiences can usually tell when the genre is being especially frugal. A bigger budget obviously does not guarantee a good movie or even a popular one, but the horror genre does seem to benefit at the box office when studios aim higher and give a damn.
NEWTON: We can’t deny the effects of trends in horror cinema. After the Saw series had ended, we entered a new era of paranormal horror. Paranormal Activity proved you didn’t need much to make an effective or successful horror film. Consequently, haunting and possession horror exploded. Shortly after that, we got James Wan’s Insidious, which was a breath of fresh air in supernatural horror. It’s not a haunted house or possession story, but it combined both into something that felt fresh.
The Conjuring films aren’t terribly different from the Insidious films, other than the fact that they’re more expensive to produce and they play in the familiar Catholic horror sandbox. That lends an immediate seriousness to The Conjuring films — audiences haven’t been scared of Insidious‘ Lipstick-Face Demon for centuries. The Devil himself, however, is something that had deeply frightened people for a long, long time. The incorporation of religious horror strikes a more resonant chord with audiences, I think, because religion is an everyday element in their lives. But that doesn’t change the fact that The Conjuring films are using scares and scenes we’ve seen in a whole bunch of other movies.
DIETSCH: There’s no debate here when it comes to the derivative nature of The Conjuring films. And to clarify, we aren’t talking about Annabelle, its upcoming sequel, or the upcoming Nun spinoff, all of which are in the same cheapie wheelhouse as most wide-release horror. I think an important factor to consider with The Conjuring movies is how they are marketed. New Line Cinema has recommitted themselves to the horror genre. Next month they are releasing the cleverly simple Lights Out. They’re also adapting Stephen King’s It into a two-part feature. A big part of that recommitment has been promoting these films like they’re more than just an eventual Redbox rental for a high school slumber party. Opening weekend success is often more indicative of a great marketing campaign than people tend to acknowledge. That might be clearer when you look at the strong drop-off The Conjuring 2 had in its second weekend.
NEWTON: It’s true — horror as an event is something that New Line appears to be reviving. New Line seems to want to be a symbol of genre quality. That’s a great sign. It helps frame horror as a genre that can compete financially and critically with today’s blockbusters. When people can look at their favorite source of film criticism and see that the only good movie opening on a weekend is a horror film, that’s a damn fine thing. It helps us all remember that horror doesn’t have to be appreciated ironically to be enjoyed.
And whether I agree with the critics about The Conjuring 2 or not, I do get some satisfaction knowing that audiences were excited to see it and that they mostly enjoyed it. But you and I both have big issues with it, and quite a few of those issues don’t have much to do with the horror. For instance, who needs a two hour and fifteen-minute horror film when significant portions of the film aren’t doing anything to drive the story forward?
DIETSCH: There are loads of issues I have with The Conjuring 2: awful dialogue, saccharine tone, tired genre clichés, an overdependence on jump scares instead of crafting atmosphere. But my biggest complaint with the film is a cardinal sin for a horror movie: it’s not scary. The familiarity of the tropes it’s using might be effective on casual moviegoers, but there’s very little in the film that’s refreshing or surprising for a horror devotee like myself. At least Lights Out and It seem like much more imaginative productions. I also hope that more studios will start having more confidence in their horror output and sell the films as such. We have pictures like Don’t Breathe and The Woods coming out later this year which both look like the kind of horror I’d rather see making a dent at the box office.
NEWTON: Here’s where you and I disagree: I don’t think horror films have to be scary to be good. (I don’t feel the same way about comedies, though, so there’s a double standard. I ain’t perfect.) I can think of plenty of horror movies I like that don’t scare me. I don’t think any of the Evil Dead films are scary, but I love ’em all. That being said, when you compare The Conjuring films to your average horror flick, The Conjuring films are obviously trying much harder to scare audiences. Here’s the thing about effort, though: when is a movie trying too hard? In the case of The Conjuring 2, I’d say it’s trying too hard for much of its protracted running time.
DIETSCH: It’s all about intent when it comes to horror, and The Conjuring 2 fails in its clear intent to be frightening. Are there a few inspired moments? Sure. The Crooked Man, though he’s wildly out of place in this (he would be right at home in an Insidious movie), is a fun concept and creature design. James Wan can scribble a good Halloween Horror Nights haunted house gag from time to time, such as the hands that appear from behind the trying-too-hard-to-be-creepy painting of the spooky nun. Is there solid acting? For the most part, yes. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are well-trained professionals that play everything without a hint of winky self-awareness. But The Conjuring 2 isn’t unique enough or risky enough to be a standard-bearer for what the horror genre needs right now. Even with my negative feelings about the movie, I hope its success ends up being a boon to the genre, helping greenlight some horror films with higher-than-average budgets and marketing that plays to a wider audience. I only hope those movies are better than the one that spawned them.
NEWTON: The worst sin The Conjuring 2 commits is something that struck me a few days after seeing the film: the protagonists, while intensely likable, are conveniently handed important plot beats on silver platters. They earn none of it, including the crucial piece of information that helps them save the day. The Conjuring 2, for all its trying, failed to tell an intelligent story. Individual scenes and sequences work, often very well, but together those scenes do not a good movie make.