By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
* Spoiler Alert
James Wan’s The Conjuring 2 is very loosely based on the real-life Enfield Poltergeist incident and I believe Wan depends on the tropes (established in his previous works, especially Insidious, and other filmmakers, namely Tobe Hooper / Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist and Richard Donner’s The Omen), far too much. The setting, plot and set pieces felt too familiar and this storyteller rarely deviates from it. As effective as he is in mastering what’s tried and true, I really hoped he would try new ideas out with this sequel.
The story is accurate in terms of revealing that the activity started when the girls started playing with an Ouija board. When you start communicating with ghosts with this device, they will want to talk back. Unless the proper precautions and sign-offs are used, they will stay until heard! The production team probably only went as far as looking at the Wikipedia entry on this case to add to the tale. While Wan’s production team said they talked to all the people involved in the case, not every incident was used or made important in this film.
A few of the jump scares are effective (you can’t always anticipate when they will happen) and the suspense is a slow burn because of the brilliantly executed cinematography. A part of what makes this film enjoyable is in how the outside world perceives the tormented space. The first act and a half included witnesses, neighbours and people across the street, like the lollipop lady, who saw the strange goings-on a street away. If the incident was too secluded, I would have questioned why nobody else, other than the investigators, can help the affected residents of a seemingly normal neighbourhood. The entity is after the middle child Janet (Madison Wolfe), and to see it move house showed it can leave whenever it wanted. To see it manifest, resembling a recent paranormal Internet meme (The Slender Man, an American invention) was too much. Shouldn’t the entity be Spring-heeled Jack? Another instance suggests the offending spirit was able to communicate what’s truly going on blocks away.
Not every detail from the real incident is covered, like when Janet was sent to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Her days at school were not fully followed up on; she did not spend the entire movie sick at home. How she gets treated by her classmates since the haunting became public was mentioned only briefly but yet the first act spends time with her at the academy with a friend who only disappeared off the narrative later.
I liked the movie for the mood it establishes, the authenticity going into the set design (I used to sit in the tarnished leather chair like the movie had back in my youth!) and the size of the television remote used. It gave the film a familiarity I have personal memories to connect with. Thankfully, the chair was never haunted, but it easily could have been. Sadly, too many other issues arose as new facts arose.
One big detail quickly glossed upon is how the father, later revealed to have walked out on the family, plays a role in the matter. If any mention was made about a divorce, it went by too quick. I was left wondering if his actions were a trigger for the problems in the rented abode. I use some factual details since I’m familiar with the actual case and I have read the accounts published in books and followed several documentaries about it. This study also includes fictional variations of this tale made for television/movie, including Ghostwatch (1992). In these previous accounts, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga reprise their roles with conviction) were rarely mentioned. They were never that deeply involved with the case. They have been credited in some accounts to have shown up because the haunting was getting world-wide attention, but they never helped the Hodgson family as much as this film implies. The Warren’s fame preceded them, and after a very publicized criticism about their participation of the Amityville case, they were picky in what to investigate from then on. Further damaging to their real-life paranormal celebrity image was a statement made by Ed to Guy Lyon Playfair, one-half of the team that truly spent time with the family. In the January 7, 2016 interview with Playfair on Darkness Radio, Ed said to him he could make the parties involved a lot of money off the case. No real paranormal investigator worth their salt should even think about profiting from any case by selling their material to a bidder. Although the Warrens never asked for a fee for their work, the mere mention is wrong.
Playfair and Maurice Grosse (Simon McBurney) are members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). This organization never charges for coming out to investigate the paranormal and as Guy pointed out in the interview, he had to find other work to support himself while investigating. A slight irony does exist since Playfair wrote his own book, This House is Haunted: The True Story of the Enfield Poltergeist, released a few years after the case to provide information to the curious (mini-review: despite not having a decent editor to clean up his written account, the information is as close to the real incident you can get). The fictionalized take was broadcasted last year in as a three-part TV series on Sky Living, titled The Enfield Haunting (available on Amazon). I enjoyed this version more as it delved into the surrogate father relationship that developed between the two sisters and Grosse — a detail not even touched upon in the film.
In addition to these two SPR representatives, Anita Gregory (Franka Potente) and John Beloff are mentioned in the big screen version. Sadly these people’s importance in the narrative gets quickly pushed aside like the fourth child in this movie. He barely gets a decent moment in the story and was most likely added for questionable authenticity. The real life case involved a family of five instead of four. Gerald Brittle’s book, The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorraine Warren, chronicles the Warren’s brief visit and makes no conclusions. In their meeting with the Hodgson family, only three of the four youths were interviewed (where did the fourth go?) and Ed claims both girls were equally affected. The Warrens believe six spirits were in the house. Ed’s investigation included an electronic voice phenomenon session where, a soldier and farmer identified themselves. In their recording, Freddie, Tommie, Billy, Charlie, Dick, John and Zachary were names given along with “gutter-man.”
I feel the bigger plan for this series of films is being considered. It may be similar to Wan’s Insidious trilogy. The spirits can one up another and by my count (in both The Conjuring films) there must be at least five to be worried about! You can not destroy a ghost. It leads me to ask if Wan’s spirit world has to consistently be the same? Maybe, because I would not mind a standoff between the Bride in Black and Demon Nun. When looking at their list of the Warrens’ documented cases, maybe a monster royale can take place between those two with the White Lady and Demon Werewolf. Let the battle to claim a mortal soul commence!