The Conjuring 2 (2016)
133 min., rated R.
Toiling in the horror genre enough times, it wouldn’t be jumping the gun to say that filmmaker James Wan (2015's "Furious 7") is a master of his craft. Even when one thinks he or she has seen every trick in the book, Wan knows exactly how to shatter expectations and play his audience like a violin without getting his kicks out of gory innards or "Saw"-like torture. If “The Conjuring” was a high-class, tension-laden treat for the summer of 2013, “The Conjuring 2” isn’t far behind. It’s a tall order for a sequel to equal or even come close to its precursor, but with revolving these films around the cases of married paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, the possibilities for 9,998 sequels stemmed from the alleged 10,000 cases in their career seem endless. That would be a markedly promising idea if they could all be like “The Conjuring 2,” a worthy follow-up rather than a mere repeat of last time or a cynical cash grab.
Following the Perron family haunting of 1971 in Harrisville, Rhode Island, Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) would continue their paranormal investigations five years later in Amityville, New York, where Ronnie DeFeo gunned down his entire family in the middle of the night. Were DeFeo’s murderous actions motivated by anger, or were they demonic? In that house is where clairvoyant Lorraine would experience a premonition of her husband’s death, haunting her so much that she would see it best to stop taking on any more cases. That is until 1977 when the Catholic Church contacts them about a haunting in Enfield, England, where financially strapped single mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four children are being terrorized by the angry spirit of their home’s former resident, a 72-year-old man named Ben Wilkinson. When 11-year-old Janet (Madison Wolfe) shows signs of possession, Ed and Lorraine are joined at the Hodgson household by researcher Maurice Grosse (Simon McBurney) and skeptical parapsychologist Anita Gregory (Franka Potente) to prove whether or not one of their trickiest cases is a hoax.
“This is the closest to hell I ever want to get,” proclaims the weary, emotionally tortured Lorraine as each case takes a piece of her. That line early on is pretty lofty in foreshadowing the level of scares to come, but there’s no need to prepare for disappointment with qualified scare-meister James Wan at the helm. First and foremost, “The Conjuring 2” isn’t about jump scares because writer-director Wan, co-writers Carey W. Hayes & Chad Hayes and David Johnson never lose sight of the people involved. The scares have less impact anyway if the viewer doesn’t give a damn and the filmmakers work in that mode throughout. Measured in his pacing across 133 minutes that never feel drawn-out, Wan first checks in on the Warrens and then sets up the lives of the Hodgson family, allowing us ample time to observe them as a unit before everything goes to hell. Then when it does, get ready to recoil in your seats, cover your eyes, bite all of your nails off, and kick the chair in front of you. It’s all a testament to Wan’s editorial touch for genuine jolts, as well as his skill of building a nerve-shredding rhythm with as much attention paid to silence as loud, seat-pouncing noises.
About as inspired as the use of Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in “Insidious” and a once-innocent game of hide and clap in “The Conjuring,” there are still more doozies left here in Wan's arsenal. How he introduces a demonic nun is indelibly creepy and what he does with a painting of the banshee-in-a-habit hung on the den wall inside the Warrens’ Connecticut home is positively shriek-inducing. Then there’s The Crooked Man, a spindly, shape-shifting figure conjured up from a child’s zoetrope that would probably make a match made in a nightmare factory with Mister Babadook. Other hair-raising frights involve an old leather chair; biscuit-loving brother Johnny Hodgson (Patrick McAuley) wandering down the hallway at night when his pesky toy ambulance keeps emerging from his teepee tent; the once-peaceful holiday sounds of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing"; and one of Janet’s sleepwalking incidents that finds her locked in her battered bedroom where every crucifix on the wall begins to turn upside down.
Going a long way to ground the horror, the note-perfect performances bring forth so much conviction that it’s easy to believe the paranormal goings-on. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson show no signs of retiring from their lived-in roles as Lorraine and Ed Warren, which they slide back into with ease and history. They have such a calmness and warm accessibility—and they’re both just accomplished actors in their own right—as this devout Catholic couple, and that they take on the Enfield case to help Peggy and her children is made credible. The part of single parent Peggy is rendered more than reactionary by a multilayered Frances O’Connor, whose character can barely make ends meet and then has to contend with protecting her family from something more insidious than affording their flat. One name, though, will be learned by the end of the film and it’s Madison Wolfe. The 13-year-old actress is an excellent standout as daughter Janet, not only perfecting a British accent with aplomb but essaying the loneliness of a child whose father has up and left her family. Were that not enough, Wolfe commits to the demands of being preyed upon and used as a poltergeist’s conduit.
Deliciously scary and classily mounted, “The Conjuring 2” is a spine-tingler through and through but also a necessary sequel that has the guts to up the ante in terms of its horror and human elements. As vital as any of the effectively orchestrated spooks, Ed Warren picking up a guitar and singing Elvis Presley’s “Fools Rush In” to the Hodgson family, as well as Lorraine, is the sort of special, intimate moment that sets apart auspiciously made filmmaking from more by-the-numbers work. James Wan is even wise to end his film on a tender, lovely note rather than a shameless “it’s-not-over-yet” jump scare. Besides depicting another one of Ed and Lorraine’s paranormal cases, none of that would mean much if it weren’t also a love story for the Warrens. Like its predecessor, "The Conjuring 2" looks like the kind of horror film from a bygone era, cinematographer Don Burgess making stunning use of overhead and long tracking shots with an uncommon fluidity and finesse without losing a drip of atmosphere. There’s also a subtle and cleverly unnerving touch with out-of-focus lensing when Janet must prove she’s not faking the “possession” by holding water in her mouth while her possessor speaks. The CGI in the intense climax is apparent and too overblown compared to everything preceding it, but within the full scope of the film, that is a minor nitpick when the wrap-up is so satisfying and well-earned. If Wan’s modus operandi was to tickle us with fear and make us care about the outcome, then he scores a bull's-eye. Be prepared to be kept up at night.
Grade: B +