Written by: Carey Hayes & Chad Hayes
Directed by: James Wan
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, and Madison Wolfe
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"This is my house."
James Wan’s career has thrived on misdirection: witness the topsy-turvy, hiding-right-under-your-nose twist from Saw, or simply observe how he carefully orchestrates his scares. He’s spent the past decade wielding his camera the same way a magician employs sleight of hand, by leading the audience’s eyes in one direction before jolting them back towards another. In this respect, The Conjuring 2 is his quintessential film not only because it’s draped with wall-to-wall scares, but also because those scares almost function like a decoy for the gentle, touching humanity that ultimately defines the film. This is the type of sequel that ostensibly feels like more of the same, yet it ultimately leaves you with a widened perspective of just what a horror franchise can be.
The rare horror series that follows the exploits of returning protagonists rather than a horrific antagonist, The Conjuring sifts through the real-life casefiles of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), taking viewers from one bit of infamous lore to the next, not unlike an anthology. Or, as The Conjuring 2 suggests, its revolving door structure is more akin to the James Bond franchise, right down to its employment of prologues that are largely disconnected from the main narrative. We pick up in the midst of one investigation, only to quickly transition to the next—there’s even a de facto scene where the couple take their next assignment from the clergy, sort of their own version of M.
In this case, The Conjuring 2 opens by delivering on the previous film’s tease: Farmiga’s ominous voiceover sets the stage for one of the Warrens’ most harrowing investigations as the camera slowly dollies through a pair of familiar quarter-moon windows, revealing the attic of Long Island’s most infamous house. In the space of about ten minutes, Wan delivers something we haven’t seen since 1982 despite literally a dozen efforts: a bone-chilling Amityville experience that recaptures just why this case became a national phenomenon. He cribs from the familiar backstory as he recounts the DeFeo murders via Lorraine’s out-of-body recollection, which brings some of the tale’s spookiest imagery to life. A positively oppressive mood forms from this tableau of ghastly specters, grisly gore, and Joseph Bishara’s unholy, nerve-jangling score. It’s arguably the first time the Amityville house has felt like it was right on the threshold of hell.
If I can gush for a moment, this sequence is the horror fan’s equivalent to what hardcore Marvel zealots must feel whenever their favorite characters and story arcs are faithfully translated to the screen. It basically amounts to Wan doing an Amityville short film, but that’s no proposition to sneeze at: as this generation’s preeminent master of horror, it almost feels like his customary tip of the cap to the era that has most influenced him. There’s an inherent thrill in seeing past merge with present, and Wan delivers on the promise in a big way. This is already among my favorite moments in a recent horror movie.
Of course, it’s also a misdirection of sorts: obviously, the sequence itself is a prologue that soon yields to the main plot, but it’s also subtly re-establishing the stakes of this franchise, which treats the Warrens less as mascots and more as actual human beings. And while this sequel acknowledges the skepticism surrounding their investigations, it’s clear that Wan and screenwriters Carey and Chad Hayes side with the couple without fail. Like in the original film, they’re careful to note the toll this work takes on the Warrens, especially Lorraine—if the opening Amityville investigation feels like a delirious high, it’s appropriate that it ends on a sobering note, one that leaves the couple wondering if they should continue this line of work. This is the crux of The Conjuring 2, a film that’s ultimately about the reaffirming powers of faith and companionship: who knew that a follow-up to one of the decade’s most frightening films could be such a sweet little love story?
Lest that has you recoiling in disbelief, rest assured that The Conjuring 2 is also scary as hell. The main case here that eventually attracts the Warrens’ guarded attention is the famous Enfield Poltergeist investigation. Touted as England’s own Amityville case, it finds recently-divorced Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four children encountering a malevolent spirit that has taken up residence in their home. A media circus erupts surrounding the case, and the Warrens enter the fray as a calming presence: they’re not just there to confirm or disprove the claims on behalf of the church—they’re also there to provide comfort and relief for a family that’s on the verge of being swallowed by the negativity surrounding them.
Both the Hodgsons and Warrens have to contend with an assortment of hauntings, especially once Wan transforms the Enfield case into his own personal sandbox, where he unloads a variety of tactics and tricks. His scare sequences are as meticulously staged as ever, relying on both creeping dread and sudden, almost spastic jolts. One scene involving a tent and a firetruck evokes the claustrophobic horrors of Polanski’s apartment pictures, as Wan cleverly blocks the stuffy environments, prompting the audience to crane their necks around a corner in order to see whatever terror may be lurking.
Wan effortlessly crafts a few of these trademark, edge-of-your-seat sequences but isn’t content to stop there. The Conjuring 2 is as relentless as its predecessor, if not more so: a sequel naturally demands some escalation of sorts, so it obliges with a colorful array of warped spirits and unsettling voices from beyond. No less than three distinct entities appear, each more uncanny than the last in the film’s attempt to corrupt a wide spectrum of sacred imagery, be it a sinister nun (Bonnie Aarons) or the twisted manifestation of the “Crooked Man” nursery rhyme. This is a nightmare factory, complete with an unnerving séance, an intense conversation with a possessed girl, and unreal sleepwalking episodes.
In its attempt to outdo the original predecessor, The Conjuring 2 cuts more deeply, if only be sheer force of will. If that film was Wan’s first, unofficial take on Amityville, then this one is his riff on The Exorcist. It’s appropriately a bit drearier, soaked as it is in rain and overcast skies; gone are the original’s rural, almost rustic, folkloric hues, here replaced by glum blues and grays, resulting in a darker but effectively moodier movie at times. Beyond serving an assault on the senses (its climax is unafraid to go big, bold, and almost operatic, right out of the Italian horror mold), The Conjuring 2 feels like an affront to the soul because it captures such a primal form of evil that exists to corrupt the innocent and ruin lives just because it can. There’s something just a tad more inexplicable about this film that I love: the deeper the Warrens dig, the more questions arise, leading them to no easy answers in particular.
Because of this, The Exorcist comparison—while obvious and probably even trite at this point—is apt in more ways than one. Skepticism and personal crises abound, just as they did in William Friedkin’s landmark film. Wan follows this to its logical extreme by crafting a film where the internal conflicts and struggles become more compelling than the supernatural forces at work. The Conjuring 2 might double up on the scares, but it also doubles down on the humanity that guided the original. It deftly weaves the Warrens’ personal anxieties into those of the Hodgsons’, particularly 11-year-old Janet (Madison Wolfe), who slowly becomes the main target of the Enfield poltergeist. Wolfe brings a tremendous pathos to a role that’s all-too-familiar, deftly oscillating between bewildered, wide-eyed victim and a menacing presence; where so many possession victims are reduced to demonic avatars, she remains a consistent reminder of that very human stakes here.
Likewise, Wilson and Farmiga are the film’s steadfast tethers, serving to ground the film in palpable, even relatable stakes that are planted even more deeply than they were in The Conjuring. The sequel once again explores the intersection between their profession and their personal lives, specifically just how much they should be willing to sacrifice of themselves in their quest to examine the paranormal and help others. The depiction here emphasizes an unwavering goodness that has come to define this franchise: more than demons and ghosts, The Conjuring is about the warm, empathic moments that counterbalance the darkness.
This is Wan’s ultimate triumph: in a film stuffed with more scares-per-minute than seems possible, these quiet exchanges prove to be just as memorable. Whether it’s in the form of a levity-inducing shot of the family (and, later, the cops) humorously and swiftly evacuating from their haunted house or a tender scene that provides a glimpse of Wilson’s Elvis impersonation, The Conjuring 2 reveals the not-so-hidden secret to Wan’s success as a horror filmmaker: it’s not the scares so much as the characters who endure them, a sentiment that sounds obvious and cliché enough, but it resonates loudly here. He all but confirms this with the closing sequence, which teases a reprise of the original film’s final stinger, only to pivot to a sweet, romantic, and reassuring moment with the Warrens.
In typical Wan fashion, he leads you in one direction before revealing something you never quite expected: somehow, The Conjuring 2 is both terrifying and poignant all at once, a rare blend that only the most masterful filmmakers can accomplish.
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