Horror sequels are much maligned. Mostly, deservingly so! There’re plenty of reasons to dismiss an arm of exploitation cinema that typically undermines a genuinely original idea by running it into the ground. Witness, for instance, how Freddy Krueger’s oneiric menace was eroded into wisecracking mediocrity by a string of undercooked, underbudgeted imitators.
And, yet, many of my favourite examples of genre cinema can be scraped from the muck of horror sequels. Nightmare on Elm Street spawned a handful of forgettable follow-ups, yes. But there’s also its first sequel, a gonzo take on being closeted in the ‘80s, the operatic excess of Dream Warriors and Wes Craven’s precursor to Scream’s meta-horror, A New Nightmare. Those films are derivative in parts, but also ambitious as all get-out; they don’t always work but when they do – striving for something fresh in the strictures of sequel conventions – they’re fuckin’ memorable.
Which brings us to the newest pair of horror sequels fighting it out at the box office: The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It and A Quiet Place Part II. The former – the eighth film in the Conjuring franchise but only the second ‘sequel’ proper – is exactly the kind of memorable movie I’m talking about, hamstrung in parts by its reverence for its predecessors but sparkling with shards of imagination. A Quiet Place Part II, though …well, we’ll get to that.
Most people are probably going to dislike The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. Or at least, not like it. They’re not wrong to be sceptical. The Devil Made Me Do It is directed by Michael Chaves, who was responsible for the entirely forgettable The Curse of the Weeping Woman (technically part of the Conjuring universe, but who really cares). It’s pulled from the headlines of con-artists – sorry, paranormal investigators – the Warrens’ actual backstory, telling the tale of how they helped a killer plead not guilty to murder because of “demonic possession.”
Rough stuff! But provided you can get past the moral murkiness of adapting these stories into fun horror films (and let’s be real, at eight films deep you’ve probably comes to terms with such issues), the end result is the most interesting of the franchise thus far. And, honestly, maybe my favourite of the series? It’s not especially scary, I’ll admit, largely thanks to its requirement to consistently shift setting. The Conjuring films generally restrict their actions to a single locale – these are haunted house films after all – but here we’re bouncing across state lines as the Warrens (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) try to prove the innocence of one Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) while investigating the source of his deadly possession.
The comparative lack of scares – not a measure of the quality of a horror film but often misinterpreted as such – also stems from the way the film reinterprets the grammar established in The Conjuring and repeated ad nauseum since. The Conjuring used sound like most horror films, luxuriating in the tension of silence and unleashing shocks with loud noises (remember the ‘hide and clap’ game?). That’s haunted house 101, and in the hands of a genre craftsman like Wan, very effective. Chaves wasn’t so effective at mimicking that in Weeping Woman, but here he inverts the approach.
What I mean that is that most of The Devil Made Me Do It’s biggest scenes are loud from start to finish. The opening exorcism and Johnson’s delirious murder are each realised with so much background noise – the banging and shaking of the house, or a Blondie track dialled up to eleven – that the dialogue’s as coherent as a late Christopher Nolan film. Rather than going for the subtle accumulation of suspense, Chaves opts for intensity. That’s going to disappoint fans, but if you’re looking more The Exorcist III than The Exorcist, you’re in luck. In every scene – every shot, every sound choice, every cut – Chaves goes for more rather than less, and it’s so bold and bombastic that I found myself loving every moment and just allowing the increasingly silly storyline to wash over me. If you want another Conjuring, you’ll be disappointed, but I reckon this is a film that horror aficionados will be reclaiming in the coming decades as is their wont.
Then there’s A Quiet Place Part II. Even if COVID meant we had to wait an extra year for it, a sequel to 2018’s smash hit was inevitable. I was somewhat cooler on the first A Quiet Place than most; in my original review, I praised its “terrifying setpieces” before critiquing “the paint-by-numbers foreshadowing and the hyper-traditionalist family model anchoring the story.”
Part II is much the same as the original, kicking off moments after the credits rolls – well, after a flashback that ensures John Krasinksi isn’t solely relegated to the director’s chair – as the Abbott family seek refuge away from their immolated farmhouse. But I found myself regarding Krasinski’s directorial approach, which heavily relies on telegraphed tension and ‘are you paying attention, dumb dumb?’ close-ups to engage his audience, with more generosity this time around. Beyond the hook of necessary silence, A Quiet Place succeeds through an intensely pure approach to horror filmmaking that is very successful. The formula? Create sympathetic characters, then place them in peril. That doesn’t require subtlety nor originality, and the old-fashioned craft that Krasinski applies to the proceedings is suspenseful and successful throughout.
The sequel’s storyline doesn’t diverge wildly from its predecessor. The scope remains narrow, and allusions to every post-apocalyptic story’s favourite cliché – animalistic humans who are the real enemies – is thankfully only paid lip-service. There’s a fundamental optimism running through Part II’s veins, an entirely unironic belief that the children are our future (with the focus shifting to Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe) at the expense of the adult actors, including enigmatic newcomer Cillian Murphy).
That optimism, though, still walks hand-in-hand with that hyper-traditionalist family model. Krasinski is a real craftsman here, finding scares through careful pacing and some compelling cross-cutting, but he still can’t seem to find anything meaningful to say beyond ‘families are important.’ There was an opportunity here to expand that scope, but instead he doubles down at every opportunity, reinforcing the importance – nay, necessity – of a mum, dad and kids being a singular unit. It’s a shame that a film with such an innovative horror hook continues to be dragged down by a reliance on obsoleted social norms. The Conjuring might be grounded in conservative Catholicism, but at least it knows how to have fun with it.