Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Madison Wolfe, Frances O’Connor, Franka Potente, Simon McBurney
Director: James Wan
Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Anyone assuming Miracles from Heaven would be the faith-based movie to beat in 2016 has another thing coming after witnessing The Conjuring 2; James Wan’s louder, longer, and more religiously-themed sequel to his 2013 original smash hit. For here’s a haunted house thrill ride full of evil nuns, angry old man spirits, foaming at the mouth children, and the prerequisite number of jump-scares which also happens to posit the Catholic Church as a leader in fighting evil. All one needs, if you are professional ghost chasers Ed and Loraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively) is a handy crucifix and cursory knowledge of archaic latin names. After getting ravaged in films like the Chilean feature The Club and last year’s Oscar winner Spotlight, The Conjuring 2 gives us a universe where religion can actually be helpful in exercising those pesky demons, although it’s doubtful the church would readily approve of a scene where Loraine viciously rips through pages of her Bible after experiencing a terrifying vision.
Events pick up a few years after the events of the original film, with the Warrens largely staying away from haunting escapades while living comfortably in their New England home. However, demon-casting duties eventually call when some strange things begin going bump in the night over at a gloomy North London council house. This time, there’s 11-year-old Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe) who seems possessed by the spirit of a crotchety old geezer who once lived in the family’s house. Janet’s three siblings and frantic mother, Peggy (Frances O’Connor) aren’t possessed themselves so much as terrorized by a series of paranormal hijinks; chairs sliding across the floor, doors slamming suddenly, the TV switching stations on it’s own, and of course, Janet speaking in a deep-toned, gravely demon voice. In typical fashion, Wan conjures many of the same beats from the first film—children in peril, 70s floral wallpaper, quiet buildup leading to a shrill crescendo on the soundtrack—all the while weaving his mobile camera around the creaky old house in order to give the audience a sense of geography before the inevitable mayhem unspools. There are cheap jump-scares here, but Wan also believes so strongly in his characters that you always feel his hand guiding us toward some kind of emotional or psychological place, even if where things ultimately end up is fairly shallow.
The original The Conjuring often played like a greatest hits demo reel mixtape—a little dash of The Exorcist here, a bit of The Amityville Horror, a few nods to Poltergeist over there—with Wan’s deft understanding of rhythm, pacing, and the release of a well-placed scare all adding up to something which felt fresh even as it was really just recycling past hits. The Conjuring 2, by contrast, doesn’t feel as novel, but in actuality, it’s a better film—more ambitious, busier, and featuring some of Wan’s most virtuosic directorial choices. Working with cinematographer Don Burgess, the camera goes from the street to second level windows (Orson Welles style), creeping through different corners of the house like a roving ghost. In a way, the camera is itself the point of view for the paranormal; gliding, creeping, and infiltrating the souls of these impoverished inhabitants. Crucially, it’s established early that the Hodgson’s are unable to move out of their home due to their dire financial situation, which somewhat offsets the usual moans of “why the hell don’t you just leave the house!” refrains which will be be applied here. Once the Warrens show up, things become more complicated, with the Catholic Church demanding proof of paranormal activity in order to take decisive action. To this end, Franka Potente shows up as a professional skeptic bent on framing everything as an elaborate hoax, and Loraine, despite her past experiences, remains in a state of doubtful fog for much of the film.
Of course, the actual plot here is little more than window dressing for a series of impressively staged set-pieces, which Wan pulls off with considerable aplomb. If there’s a real weakness to The Conjuring 2, it’s the fact that all of the best material occurs within the first two acts. The climax is a muddle of repetitive tropes; with characters getting locked out of rooms, Janet in full on possession mode, and Loraine screaming out the evil entity’s name over the roar of a nasty storm. It also doesn’t help that the film is overlong at 134 minutes, with many scenes, including Ed serenading the family with acoustic versions of Elvis songs, feeling especially wedged in to provide earnest character moments. There’s also the question of whether or not the movie is actually scary; a subjective question, to be sure, but one which remains germane to the genre. At best, The Conjuring 2 is a film built around the idea of modulation; of gradually ratcheting up the sense of dread until it boils over. In that sense, it’s often more chilling than truly terrifying, perhaps because the frights here are all beats we’ve experienced before and also because they are executed with an almost reverential touch. However, this reverence to 70s and 80s horror cinema is a welcome form of pastiche for mainstream horror cinema in 2016. Wan adores his retro revivalism in a way that actually elevates the material here, even if that means audiences may walk out with the unexpected dose of faith-based optimism. Hell, that might even be the most shocking jump scare in the entire movie.