In The Enfield Haunting, a three-part TV series based on Guy Playfair’s account of the 1977 paranormal incident, American demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren do not appear. In this film, a follow-up to The Conjuring (and its bye-blow, Annabelle), Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga reprise their roles as the Warrens and Playfair is omitted from the cast of characters. Otherwise, there are – for obvious reasons – a lot of parallels, with Simon McBurney and Franka Potente playing belief-inclined Maurice Grosse and sceptic Anita Gregory, who were also in the TV version (which was built around Timothy Spall’s Grosse and Matthew Macfadyen’s Playfair). Given the fuss these both make about being based on fact, one or both must be at least fudging things in assigning credit or blame to rival investigators. A recurrent problem with based-on-fact spook stories is that the annoying spoilsport rationalist (Potente practically gets a boo-hiss when she video-records one of the haunted children faking poltergeist activity and bending a spoon) is in real life the person you’d most trust, and everyone else seems self-interested, deluded or working a racket.
Director James Wan – who co-wrote with Carey Hayes, Chad Hayes and David Leslie Johnson – has no public service remit. Whatever really happened – which is still hotly-disputed – is beside the point when the film really wants to reprise the surprise success of The Conjuring, which already deviated from reportage into the concerns of Wan’s wholly-fictional Insidious series. Overlaid on the night-time noises, moving furniture and other phenomena are a mystery about who or what is behind the haunting – clue: look at the big letters arranged prominently on a bookcase – and a heroic tale of the sincere, crusading Warrens taking the fight to the Devil in a very American manner that the British Society for Psychical Research will be embarrassed by. The film at least acknowledges in an early talk show scene that the Warrens are controversial figures – but Wilson and Farmiga play them as achingly decent, without a trace of the hucksterism of psychic ambulance-chasing many accuse their real-life counterparts of being devoted to. The Enfield Haunting was at least balanced and well-researched, but this is so fictionalised that it would probably have made more sense to make up character names and go with ‘inspired by’ rather than ‘based on’. There is an attempt to evoke the UK in the late ‘70s (though there should be a moratorium on using ‘London Calling’ over montages of tourist attractions and riots to establish time and space) and Frances O’Connor makes a reasonable stab at seeming like a struggling working class single Mum – though her haunted house is unfeasably large (with a flooded cellar) and the film’s sense of Britain is hit-or-miss.
An early evil act of the spirit is to use a TV remote control (which only a gadget-obsessed rich household would have run to in 1977) to switch over from The Goodies to a Margaret Thatcher speech. The haunted kids’ bedrooms are decorated with Starsky & Hutch and New Avengers posters (later replaced by a load of crucifixes which are psychokinetically turned upside-down in a lick borrowed from one of the cheapest horror films ever made, Satanwar) – and David Soul even features on the soundtrack, along with a few random British Invasion pop tunes from a decade or more earlier. The Conjuring gambits are all trotted out: long takes, loud noises, sudden attacks from inanimate objects, creepy playthings (a Crooked Man from a praxinoscope shows a Babadook influence), possessed kids (Madison Wolfe almost goes the full Linda Blair), seeming ghosts with demon puppet-masters and the Warrens hugging victims while warding off demons. At 133 minutes, it perhaps crashes the length barrier for a simple scary movie – it has too many trick shocks and catch-up-with-who-believes-what valleys to sustain the mood, and Wilson and (especially) Farmiga are ill-served by the stuffy, pompous, cutesy-sexy Christian characterisations they are stuck with.
The Conjuring films are basically the Insidious movies hobbled by a need to pretend to be true stories, even as real people’s troubles (whatever they might have been) are redressed into demon movie clichés. The redeeming factor of this, as with the first film, is that in parts it’s quite scary – which is an achievement in that it owes enough to the true story not to add a body count so we have here the story of a demon attack in which no one is really harmed, let alone killed. To redress this omission, the film opens with an earlier case – as the Warrens hold a séance in that famous Amityville home (in a nice touch, we see its distinctive windows only from inside the house) as Lorraine is psychically projected into selected murderous highlights from Amityville 2: The Possession.