You know a filmmaking team (especially in the horror genre) has confidence when a storyline involving the Amityville Horror case is relegated to the prologue of your primary, based-on-a-true-story haunting investigation plot. But such is the case with director James Wan’s long-awaited further adventures of paranormal detectives Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), who guided us through the hauntings and possessions of THE CONJURING three years ago.
Wan is one of the few genre directors working today who has managed to combine quality filmmaking with actual success in most cases (with the first SAW film, the two INSIDIOUS films), and it has allowed him to branch out and dabble in the non-horror realm with the megahit FURIOUS 7 and an upcoming AQUAMAN movie. But he has a recognizable style and rhythm to his horror works that is identifiable and still highly effective. In fact, he’s almost noticeably uncomfortable with downtime in his movie (clearly seen in a blessedly brief sequence involving Wilson doing an Elvis Presley song and impersonation), which results in the scares coming at a sometimes relentless pace. That works for me.
The opening Amityville sequence is something of a set up, while attempting to establish whether the haunting of that house is real or a publicity-seeking hoax. But during a seance, Lorraine is exposed to an evil force in her vision that takes the form of a truly terrifying demonic nun, in an attempt to use the iconography from her religious upbringing against her. It is established immediately that this is a vengeful and aggressive presence. Thus it’s not difficult to predict that when it goes away when this new case arises, that it’s not the last we’ve seen of it.
THE CONJURING 2 takes the Warrens to London, where a particularly nasty and violent ghost is terrorizing the Hodgson family, with mother Peggy (Frances O’Connor) and four children, including daughter Janet (the fantastic young actress Madison Wolfe, from JOY and TRUMBO most recently), on whom the ghost seems to be centered. The build up of disturbances in the household, leading up to the Warrens being brought in, is fantastic and utterly terrifying. It starts out with Janet falling asleep in bed and waking up in the living room, at the foot of a ratty old chair in the darkest corner of the family living room. But before long, things begin to move, loud noises only heard by certain family members come from everywhere, and something unseen (and eventually seen) starts grabbing and biting. Fun for everyone.
While the set up may sound a whole lot like THE CONJURING, the differences are there. This second installment adds a deeper layer of Lorraine’s spiritual protection to the mix, which isn’t surprising since her faith is under almost constant attack in this film. Crucifixes are used to push the pesky spirit out of a room just as readily as the ghost turns dozens of crosses upside down in Janet’s room before attacking her. In essence, the attacks begin to feel personal, and the Warrens begin to wonder if this particular spirit (who turns out to be the ghost of one Bill Wilkins, played by Bob Adrian, an old man who once lived in the house) is somehow tied to the spooky nun from the beginning of the film.
If I had one overriding issue with THE CONJURING 2, it’s that it strays too far from what feels like fact-based material. Having this demon following Lorraine feels like plot, but the nightly hauntings feel more reality based and thus far scarier. There’s a particular sequence in which Janet begins speaking in Bill’s old-man voice, but the way the moment is shot, Janet is out of focus while Ed is in focus in the foreground. But your eyes never leave the fuzzy Janet in the background because something changes in her appearance that you can’t quite make out but you know it’s awful.
A Wan horror trope brought over from his Insidious movies is bringing in paranormal scientists to attempt to make audio and video recordings of any disturbances. I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised to see Franka Potente pop in as Anita, who is heading the team of skeptics. They point out how all of the early incidents of hauntings can be explained or faked. In truth, the moments with this late edition to the story don’t really feel necessary, and as much as I love the idea of horror getting as long a running time as a dramatic epic or a Judd Apatow film (THE CONJURING 2 comes in at about 2.25 hours), there is undeniably some fat on the bones here. It’s forgivable because so much of what’s here works so beautifully.
Wan and veteran, Oscar-winning cinematographer Don Burgess have created a film of such pure atmosphere and dread that you’re almost choking on the sense of foreboding and tension. The screenplay—credited to the original film’s writers Carey and Chad Hayes, as well as Wan and David Johnson—is packed with so many ideas that it begins to feel slightly cramped with crisscrossing plotlines. It’s not enough to ruin the experience, but it’s noticeable.
Still, THE CONJURING 2 is so good, that much like the first film, I can see it inspiring another wave of sub-par copycats for the next few years. Wan allows his camera to flow throughout the house, and we know something bad is going to happen, so it becomes a waiting game. Can he surprise us, or will we see the monster coming a mile away? Ninety percent of the time, Wan gets us. And in the horror realm, those are stats you cannot ignore, and if Wan is truly taking time off from scare films for a while, my heart will break a little, but I’ll eagerly await his return as well as whatever else he has planned down the line.