The Conjuring 2 Finds Scares New and Old in Jolly England
James Wan’s horror sequel feels familiar but is still better than far too many horror “originals.”
The Conjuring franchise bucks the trend among horror films in that the connective tissue between series installments isn’t a particular monster or villain, but instead follows the same protagonists as they face new threats. Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) are the ghost-hunting duo in question – a real-life couple best known for investigating the home at the center of The Amityville Horror. That story’s been done to death already with fourteen films and counting, but any fear that a future Conjuring sequel would do so again are laid to rest as The Conjuring 2 opens.
Ed and Lorraine have just tackled the case opening them to immense media attention, but more troubling than the spotlight is a premonition she saw during their investigation. She suggests they quit direct confrontations with the supernatural and focus on educating the public, but when word reaches them about a terrified family across the Atlantic Ed convinces her that they have to help.
The Hodgson family – mom Peggy (Frances O’Connor), her two daughters and two sons – are living a nightmare in north London’s Enfield borough. Young Janet (Madison Wolfe) has become the unwilling target of a malevolent spirit who claims the family is trespassing in his home, and his violent outbursts are growing more intense. Local media has already whipped up comparisons to Amityville, and the Warrens arrive in search of evidence to satisfy the Catholic church (who require it before consenting to an exorcism) but are surprised to find none. Is this a hoax? Or is something more devious and diabolical at play.
Director James Wan returns to horror after his successful (commercially anyway) venture into the world of the Fast & Furious, and it’s immediately clear that his genre chops are intact. Writers Carey & Chad Hayes return too (joined by Wan and David Leslie Johnson), and the result is a film that once again balances big, beautiful scares with satisfying emotional beats. It’s familiar – sometimes overly so – but the chills and thrills remain.
The film once again focuses on a family including a stressed and harried mother and vulnerable young girls and is inter-cut with the Warrens developing spookiness back home. It’s never dull, but at 133 minutes the movie does feel its length at times and could have benefited from a trim to the Hodgson family’s experiences before the Warrens arrive. There’s a degree of redundancy to the scares early on while the film is strictly in tease-only mode before the narrative comes into play.
O’Connor’s character isn’t given the depth of Lili Taylor’s from the first film, but Wolfe gets time to shine as the supernaturally harassed young girl at the center of it all. She displays intelligence, charm, and emotion equally well and hints more than once at comparisons to the look and feel The Professional-era Natalie Portman. The cast is fine throughout, but it’s the anchor provided by Farmiga and Wilson that help elevate the film. They make for a convincing couple, and the combination of script and performance turns their affection into a degree of emotion missing from most horror films.
One of Wan’s greatest strengths remains his eye for shadow and forced perspectives. Horror films typically rely on terrors popping into the frame to startle a character, but Wan’s (and cinematographer Don Burgess’) camera is constantly gliding, tilting, and surveying the surroundings for potentially unsettling sights. We scan across a room or glance down a hallway, and then we do it again, but on the second (or even third) look something has changed for the worse. One early scene even provides an onscreen answer to a major third act question facing our heroes, while another involving a painting of a demonic nun offers a masterclass to genre film makers hoping to create suspense and terror through shadow, light, and patience.
He’s also unafraid to stretch scenes of tense anticipation well past the point where most directors would break and throw in a lazy jump scare. Not that Wan’s above the immediacy of such things, but he’s comfortable mixing those “shock” payoffs with unnerving setups that refuse to take the easy way out. As he did with the first film (and to a lesser degree his Insidious films) he creates some of his most frightening scenes with nothing onscreen beyond terrified characters and the mere possibility of something in the shadows.
As good as he is at crafting scares though Wan still makes the occasional misstep when he allows technology to intrude on style. That’s evident here in a character named the Crooked Man whose presence embodied primarily via CG feels removed from the more grounded and visceral frights that occupy the majority of the film. It’s cool, but it’s not scary.
Horror sequels aren’t typically as good as their predecessors, but The Conjuring 2 comes closer than most. The talents both in front of and behind the camera commit to their craft and to the film, and the result is a rare horror movie that will have you jumping, smiling, and actually giving a damn.