Film Review: The Conjuring 2

Despite its effective jump-scares and stunning camerawork, this sequel can’t quite measure up to the emotional resonance of its predecessor.
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Here’s some well-earned hyperbole: James Wan’s The Conjuring is a contemporary horror masterwork. It wasn’t necessarily inventiveness-by-design that made it distinctive, as its story–a lower-middle-class family’s frightening battle against a creepy old haunted house—was knowingly simple and hardly original. It was instead a determination to perfect all the familiar elements of the genre: a deeply religious context, a spine-chilling locale, effective jump-scares and relatable, well-conceived characters (that no one would ever want to trade places with) in unfathomable hazard. The Conjuring summoned and devilishly exploited (as a good horror film should) the underlying anxieties of the vulnerable everyman: not only around real-life hurdles of parenthood and financial hardship, but also the unknown, unseen and haunting traces the sorrow of others leaves throughout time.

In the mostly effective but on the whole bloated The Conjuring 2—once again directed by Wan with the same captivating flair seen in The Conjuring and the first two Insidious movies—you will find many of the recognizable themes and qualities of its predecessor. Yet, contrary to the clockwork efficiency of the first chapter, this one (running a needlessly generous 133 minutes) is curiously convoluted, with a premise that takes a while to arrive and gel, with too many players ultimately shadowing the struggling family that ought to be at the heart of the story.

The Conjuring 2 opens with a semi-independent snippet, as we follow demonologists Lorraine and Ed Warren (played by the same radiant duo, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) deep at work on the infamous Amityville haunting case in 1976. After a gorgeous and legitimately frightening setup—during which Lorraine sees a vision of an evil being (with a peculiar resemblance to the demon from Insidious, also starring Wilson)—we become aware of another case unfolding across the pond in England. Single mom Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four children—including Janet (played with arresting force by Madison Wolfe)—live in a rundown house in a suburb of London and discover their financial struggles are the least of their worries when demonic presences in their household let themselves be known and periodically possess Janet. With the attention it receives from British national media, their case brings Ed and Lorraine out of retirement for “one final job,” putting their post-Amityville plan of quitting on hold. Joined by the unconvinced German parapsychologist Anita Gregory (Franka Potente) and the overeager British paranormal investigator Maurice Grosse (Simon McBurney), Ed and Lorraine—given a lot more presence and prominence in this film compared to the first—fall into their old habits and gather evidence in the Hodgson household to convince the church of the authenticity of their case. But this time, despite all the activity in the house, Lorraine can’t seem to sense a presence.

Ultimately, The Conjuring 2 spends too much time on contemplating whether the family or Janet are telling the truth (when the audience has absolutely no reason to doubt them at all) and diminishes the emotional power and urgency of its scares as a result. Written by Wan, Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes (also scribes of the first film) and David Leslie Johnson, the script branches out to introduce several twists, overcrowding the stage with multiple presences pursuing not only the Hodgsons, but also the Warrens. All these avenues naturally give Wan a wealth of opportunities to display his skills (and he has many) as an accomplished horror storyteller. Despite the at times overlabored musical cues, be assured that the icy-blue look of the film is petrifying, the period details are top-notch, the jump-scares are effective and the performances—especially by Wolfe and Wilson (who does a brilliant Elvis impression, among other things)—are first-rate. Don Burgess’ stunning camerawork—with superbly choreographed tracking shots loaded with imminent danger and frequent, clever play on background and foreground—is a reason alone to see the film. Yet, it’s almost as if the overstretched story here is an apparatus in service of showcasing this abundance, when it should be the other way around. While the scares of The Conjuring 2 mostly score, their cumulative effect curiously feels emotionally vacant, unable to convey the swelling perils of both Hodgsons and the Warrens with resonance and psychological depth.

If The Conjuring was a flawlessly executed, hearty dish that followed a timeless, classic recipe, this feels like an attempt to deconstruct and fancy it up, to prove something no one necessarily asked for. In the beginning of the film, Lorraine Warren’s shaky voice leads us into the madness with “There isn’t much that rattles either of us—but this one still haunts me.” That very well might be the case for her, but I have to wonder if The Conjuring 2 will be the cause of as many sleepless nights for me as The Conjuring was. I think I already know the answer.

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