I finally got around to watching two films that kept turning up on the best horror of 2016 lists—and while I could not agree more that Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe belongs at the top of that list, James Wan’s The Conjuring 2 shouldn’t even be up for consideration.
The only things that really excited me about Conjuring 2 were the mid-1970s English setting of the film, which felt very authentic—the clothes, the school satchels, the cars, the music, the posters of Starsky and Hutch—and the genuinely creepy nun (and, sure enough, there’s a spin-off called The Nun in the works; doesn’t anyone remember how horrible Annabelle was?). Aside from that, Conjuring 2 was a huge disappointment, and not least because it served up exactly the same plot as The Conjuring (James Wan, 2013).
In Conjuring 2, Lorraine and Ed Warren are called to Enfield (in London) to observe the seemingly supernatural occurrences besetting the Hodgson family, a family of four children and their recently single mother. As in The Conjuring, the presence of something demonic hints that something may well be wrong within the family: in the first film, Roger and Carolyn Perron were worried about money, and the film also suggests the inherent difficulty of mothering five children (I wrote earlier about motherhood and abortion in the film); in Conjuring 2, there’s some attempt to suggest that the uncanny manifestations that afflict eleven-year-old Janet (Madison Wolfe) in particular may be due to her father having left (she was very close to him, we’re told), but the film doesn’t really follow through on this suggestion and in the end it’s even more unambiguously clear than in The Conjuring that what we’re dealing with is the demonic, pure and simple.
And this is one of my problems with Conjuring 2: it’s just not very interesting. It wastes the talented cast it assembles to play the Hodgson mother and daughters, making who they are not in the least bit relevant to what happens to them. They are simply besieged, for no reason at all, by a demon.
My second problem is that, even more so than in The Conjuring, the demon proves to be stunningly easy to exorcise. Apparently all one needs to do is say its name and it’s gone. This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that, toward the end, Conjuring 2 evokes The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) in that an important scene takes place near an upstairs window. The genuine struggle and sacrifice involved in exorcising the demon in The Exorcist makes what happens at the end of Conjuring 2 all the more laughable.
Bottom line, Conjuring 2 is just too simplistic: the demonic strikes at random; good religious people (the Warrens) show up; and then after the briefest of skirmishes, the demon is banished.
Which brings me to the far superior Don’t Breathe. There is nothing simplistic about Don’t Breathe. Gwen wrote a fabulous post about justice and victimhood in Don’t Breathe—about how the blind man (Stephen Lang) is relentlessly victimized and yet somehow turned into the monster when three kids invade his home to steal all his money (how does that work, you might ask?!). But this is exactly why Don’t Breathe is great: it relentlessly forces you to ask yourself who is guilty and who is innocent, who is good and who is evil. The film makes you think about good and evil rather than serving it up, as Conjuring 2 does, as a completely clear-cut opposition that really isn’t about us humans at all: God (and people who believe in God) is good and the demon / devil is evil.
This crucial difference between the two films is highlighted in a series of shots. At one moment in Conjuring 2, Janet is discovered crammed into a cupboard (by the demon, presumably) and Ed holds up the cross to try to rid the moment of its horror.
Don’t Breathe, on the other hand, is full of moments when its protagonist, Rocky (Jane Levy) is crammed into small places, as she tries to escape the blind man and his house (after she’s broken in). These moments all visualize the fact of Rocky’s entrapment, which is more than literal. The reason she agrees to steal the blind man’s money in the first place is because she is trapped in a degraded life, with an alcoholic mother who is clearly utterly neglectful and possibly abusive. More importantly, Rocky’s still-innocent little sister is trapped—and Rocky wants to create a better life not only for herself but for her sister. To the extent that Rocky participates in a clearly wrong act—victimizing a blind man who’s already been multiple victimized—she does it because she and her sister have no other way out. This entrapment is far different, and far more interesting, I think, than Janet’s entrapment in Conjuring 2.
The most chilling line of Don’t Breathe is spoken by the blind man to Rocky, after the terrible secret he’s hiding in his basement is revealed:
“There’s nothing a man can’t do once he accepts the fact that there’s no god.”
And that’s the difference between Conjuring 2 and Don’t Breathe. Conjuring 2 is about the perpetual battle between a transcendent God and his demonic antagonists. We don’t have a lot to do with it—and the battle lines are starkly and clearly drawn. In Don’t Breathe, there is no god and we see what humans are capable of—good, bad, and the very messy inbetween. What the blind man did was terrible. But what was done to him was terrible. The same is true, to a lesser extent (maybe), of Rocky. She relentlessly pursued someone else’s money because she needed it (and, yes, her little sister needed it). Rocky’s need made her feel entitled to money that was not hers—and the more blood that got shed in its pursuit, the more entitled she seemed to feel. Was that more or less evil than what the blind man did? Don’t Breathe makes you think about that rather than handing you pre-packaged and easy answers.