A sequel to a mediocre hand-holding horror hit doesn’t exactly sound all too promising, but James Wan’s umpteenth kick at the creepy can is actually an effective explosion of eerie extremes. Not a genre masterpiece or anything remotely groundbreaking, but an armrest-clenching ride that translates classic horror tropes into frighteningly frantic fun.
Wan temporarily left horror pics behind to helm the glitzy action-packed seventh entry in the Fast & Furious franchise, where he pulled off some rather wonderful tricks with the camera, but now he’s returned to ghosts and ghouls with The Conjuring 2. Even though horror is his home and action blockbuster was the departure, he’s smartly brought some of the newfound sense of camera-toying adventure to his latest fright flick.
So The Conjuring 2 becomes that rare horror movie that both oozes style and looks lavishly expensive, a study in slick sickliness with smooth, floating camera movements beaming with directorial confidence. Visually, it’s reminiscent of The Shining and The Sixth Sense, so what it lacks in originality it makes up for in good company.
Big fright flicks generally need big scripts, so the army of credited screenwriters that includes Wan, Chad and Carey Hayes, and David Leslie Johnson provides plot and foreshadowing accordingly. A prologue that places famed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) at the iconic Amityville home seems superfluous at the start, but later proves to be packed with info and imagery that infects and affects the rest of the movie.
It’s a pleasant surprise, that the movie is using the exhaustive case file history of the real-life Warrens to build the movie franchise’s own mythology while directly linking the pieces so that the whole experience feels both expansive and intimate. It’s a smart move to anchor the dramatic stakes for the Warrens early, because The Conjuring 2 will soon become as much the tale of an embattled Enfield, England family who are experiencing dangerous paranormal phenomena as it is the story of Ed and Lorraine, ghostbusting lovers.
The Amityville experience has the clairvoyant Lorraine particularly spooked, so much so that she’s ready to halt the couple’s whole demon-hunting operation. People are always trying to quit or retire from whatever they did well in a previous movie, only to get sucked back in due to the severity of the situation, so we know where this is headed. Still, Farmiga plays shaken well and Wan gives us a glimpse of her fear in convincing fashion.
Lorriane fears Ed’s death if they continue down this path, but she also fears the damned demon nun that she met in the Amityville basement and that is now terrorizing her in her own home. It’s terrorizing us, too, unless you’re the kind of person who just shakes off terrifyingly silent pale-faced monsters who love to stare eerily while wearing a nun habit. I am not one of those people, so a sequence in which Lorraine faces the demon alone in a room where an accurate painting of the creature peers out of the darkness had me buzzing with fright, excited and exhilarated by Wan’s playful handling of the imagery.
There’s no way the movie can stop there, so the Warrens head to England after all, an obvious decision that Wan dramatically bolsters by introducing us to single mom Peggy (Frances O’Conner) and her four sweet children, Margaret (Lauren Esposito), Johnny (Patrick McAuley), Billy (Benjamin Haigh), and Janet (Madison Wolfe). They’re likable and scared and easy to sympathize with, so of course the Warrens should go and help them. Wan knows that if we care about the terrifed victims, then we’ll buy into the whole experience. It doesn’t matter that Lorraine’s hesitance was essentially dramatic filler. What matters is that the family gets help.
The disturbing events inside the haunted Enfield home allow Wan to execute some of his finest shots and scares, smartly timing the jumps and tweaking the focus and depth of field in clever ways that make cinematographer Don Burgess’s work especially commendable. Another reason the various sequences in the home work so effectively is the home itself. It’s a large house, blatantly so, to the point that the rooms feel almost oversized, thus leaving lots of empty spaces to generate unease. And it’s also a very dark, worn place, partially to reinforce the fact that the family isn't too well off, but mainly to maximize the amount of dark corners where shapes and voices can hide.
Obviously, a key ingredient in a good haunted house movie is an actual good haunted house and The Conjuring 2 succeeds greatly in that regard, while earning additional scare points for the emphasis on perspective-driven visuals. With those elements so effectively in play, Wan just needs a competent cast to keep it convincing, but he's assembled a sharp group here that actually provides some emotional heft, enough to keep us invested.
Wilson and Farmiga reprise their roles with their romantic chemistry intact. It's imperative that we buy them as a couple because the movie keeps pushing the argument that the Warrens are charlatans and the Enfield haunting a big hoax. Whatever one believes in real life (consensus points to the argument being fair), we need to believe in this version of the Warrens or else the movie surrenders its grip on us entirely.
We need to believe in the haunting, too, and Wolfe marks another strong entry in the annals of chilling child performances in horror films. The rest of the family has to simply act scared, but Wolfe has to dig at something deeper and be both innocent and monstrous, occasionally at the same time. Large-scale mainstream horror like this often opts for an emotional hook involving the plight of a child and Wolfe gives Wan the level of heart that he needs to fulfill his movie’s emotional component.
Above all, though, The Conjuring 2 is a celebration of the jump scare and the blockbuster horror movie from a director who took a break from the genre and came back with more confidence and creativity. Wan isn’t one to reinvent a genre or anything like that, but he puts a fun spin on an old ride, like refurbishing a classic haunted house attraction so that the jolts feel fresh and the experience lavishly sinister. Horror sequels rarely fare so well, especially when they’re not working hard to deviate from their predecessors. The Conjuring 2 is an extension of the previous pic, except merely more, which for loudly stylized horror cinema is much better than less.