Scaring the bejesus out of moviegoers is a delicate alchemy that is difficult to harness just once. An often unholy mixture of visual and aural cues, filmmakers can struggle to repeatedly summon that kind of dark magic. And for director James Wan, it could risk even becoming a simple formula after Saw, Insidious, and 2013’s cinematic chokehold The Conjuring. Yet, The Conjuring 2 proves itself to be more than a worthy successor to the filmmaker’s growing legacy of bumps in the night that actually cause you to sit up and take notice of your surroundings.
For the sequel, Wan and company also have the added (and unenviable) task of following up his last chiller that was something of a cultural touchstone for anyone looking to scream at the multiplex. While there have been a number of great horror movies since 2013, most of them have emerged in the indie world. Generally, studio sponsored scares have meanwhile continued to emulate the kind of haunted house beats and creaks that Wan (and Blumhouse Productions) have made very familiar for those too young to recall Poltergeist or The Exorcist.
But whereas most of the imitators are as mechanical as the rickety plots that connect their jump scares, Wan still proves to have a masterful touch for winding audiences up and getting them to hold their breath while his camera swoops and glides with calculated grace. Even if The Conjuring 2 is intrinsically similar to its forebearer’s design, and consequently not quite as thrilling a ride, it still has shocks aplenty to behold—not least of which is a surprising focus on the humans buried underneath all the well-timed boos.
Ostensibly based on a true story, Conjuring 2 picks up mostly six years after the first film’s events on a bewitched farmhouse in Rhode Island. Ed and Lorraine Warren—embodied by the still invaluable castings of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga—are on something of an extended sabbatical. As revealed in the prologue, the Warrens wound up involved during the intervening years in one of the most infamous “hauntings” of the 20th century: “the Amityville Horror.” But while this ghost story turned out to be a hoax in reality, in the film’s world it was a nightmarish brush with the mouth of Hell for Lorraine, who found herself face to face with a demon that might have just followed her home.
Hence their reluctance to get involved in any new cases by 1977. Still, as the Warrens tour the talk show circuit and face increased skepticism from academia about their findings, there is a family with serious problems across the Atlantic in Enfield (a borough on the northern outskirts of London). There, within a rundown council home, single mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) is slowly realizing there is something very wrong. With barely enough money to make ends meet, she cannot even replace the furniture she and her husband inherited when they bought the house—and he has since walked out on the family.
Soon, however, far graver concerns manifest as 11-year-old Janet (Madison Wolfe) becomes the target of a malevolent spirit that at first is content with attacking her sense of calm day and night, but quickly graduates to possessing her body and inflicting the most devilish case of vocal fry ever heard. After Peggy’s other children also start seeing strange sights, and furniture begins to voluntarily move on its own accord, the family realizes they desperately need help. And it’s cold comfort when the best the local police can offer is to tell Peggy to call a priest.
In addition to being a sequel to a popular horror movie, The Conjuring 2 also must contend with the fact that the stories it is exploring are increasingly more well-known (and challenged) in the media. It is likely for that very reason that the film rushes through the Amityville case early on. Beyond that dead horse being beaten by its own movie franchise, the creep factor is just naturally lessened when compared to the original’s Annabelle opener since most folks these days know about Amityville, and how it’s been disproven.
Fortunately, the majority of Americans never caught a peep about the infamous Enfield Poltergeist that rocked the London press in ’77. Also a more ambiguous set of events than Amityville—several journalists and a London policewoman in real-life filed reports on strange occurrences like self-moving chairs in that Green Street house—there is a much more foreboding mystery to be found here, and the filmmakers immerse themselves six feet deep into it.
The best parts of The Conjuring 2 are its differences from the first film. By wholeheartedly embracing its ‘70s English aesthetic, and the media circus that engulfed Enfield (the paranormal activity lasted 14 months), there is an added conflict of Ed and Lorraine being tasked by the Catholic Church to figure out whether this is hoax or real, and whether there is a child who is being dramatic or demonic on the audio tapes.
While the viewer is keyed in early that the horror is legitimate with one perfectly paced dread-builder after another tormenting poor Janet, the Warrens are forced to awkwardly deal with the urban and sensational elements of an investigation spiraling out of control. This is mostly beneficial since the set-pieces, though effective, are more noticeably pronounced in their machinations and lack anything as nerve-shattering as the “clapper” or “rocking chair” scenes from the first Conjuring.
It is probably for this reason that Wan doubles down on his biggest influence for both Conjuring films, 1973’s The Exorcist. That seminal classic’s presence lingered in the wings during 2013, but The Conjuring 2 softly remakes the human misery of that William Friedkin masterpiece, with a focus being on the deterioration of a little girl, superbly played by the young Ms. Wolfe, and its draining, nihilistic effect on her family. The scenes of a child’s innocence being desecrated by something monstrous inside of her are ever more effective than the questionable use of CGI manifestations (of which there are several in the sequel).
More than the jumps, the filmmakers seem most interested with digging into the humanity of their ghostbusting demonologists, whether it be through fear, prayer, or even romance. Thus, the best scene of the film has nary a crash or whisper. Instead, The Conjuring takes advantage of Wilson’s full tenor and has Ed Warren comfort a beleaguered, hollowed out family on the Eve of Christmas by crooning Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Apparently, this is the first scene Wan wrote for the sequel, and its sense of layered concern for its characters, both the deadened Hodgsons and the simultaneous glances made between Wilson and Farmiga, is a rarity in horror.
… and so too is a scary sequel that is this good.