James Wan knows how to make a horror movie. Some may shrug their shoulders at that claim, thinking "So what?" But only a genuine film-maker who understands how to engage and manipulate his or her audience can work in the archetypal haunted house sub-genre- as Wan did in the first two Insidious films and the original The Conjuring (2013)-and make the cliches and familiar beats feel fresh and genuinely intense. He isn't interested in subverting your expectations of the genre; he's more concerned in reminding us of the pure thrill of being frightened by ''what goes bump in the night."
The Conjuring 2 begins with a prologue re-introducing us to Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), the ghost-busting couple of the original film-and dramatised versions of the real life Warrens. The Warrens are investigating the notorious Amityville murders of the DeFeo family, committed by the oldest son, Ronald DeFeo. During a seance, Lorraine enacts the murders- and in one shot, instead of Lorraine's reflection, DeFeo is seen in a mirror. In her vision, Lorraine encounters a demon dressed as a nun. After being shaken out of the vision, Lorraine no longer wants to investigate hauntings-especially when later she begins to see visions of Ed's death.
We then jump to the film's main plot, which is the 1977 haunting of the Hodgson residence in Enfield, England. As with the first film, the Enfield haunting does have basis in fact though there is scepticism regarding whether there was a supernatural presence in the house. The England setting provides an interesting contrast with the original film, which focused on a quintessentially American ghost story- the haunting of the Perron family at their farmhouse in Harrisville.
The Conjuring 2 follows a similar formula to its predecessor as the Warrens are introduced at the beginning and confined to the background while we spend time with the family being haunted. Peggy Hodgson (Frances O'Connor) is a single mother raising her two daughters Janet (Madison Wolfe), Margaret (Lauren Esposito), Billy (Benjamin Haigh), and Johnny (Patrick McAuley). Wan always wants to make the audience feel the experience of actually living in a haunted house- before our protagonists come to save the day. He does the same thing with the original Insidious- where Elise (Lin Shaye) comes in to help the Lambert family.
It takes a little too long for the Warrens' story to meet up with the Hodgson's. And the whole movie can't help but feel too long in general. In his other horror films Wan uses a loose narrative framework on which to hang his set-pieces- and The Conjuring 2 feels like this approach taken to its logical extreme- in both good and bad ways. Wan doesn't seem interested in making a tight or lean film but The Conjuring 2 still works due to Wan's relish in scaring you. The film is arguably too unrelenting and I don't know how the film will play on re-watch- but it's the rare horror movie which gives too much rather than too little.
This is also a horror film which demands to be viewed on a theatre screen. Wan uses the frame to great effect and there are several wonderfully staged sequences in this film. One of the best- if not the best- doesn't even include every camera movement or editing. There's a close-up on Ed talking to the spirit of Bill Wilkins behind him (who communicates through Janet but won't speak while everyone is looking). The background is out of focus but we can see the image of Bill as he take over Janet. At first I didn't notice the effect but when I did it added a subtle creepiness of the scene.
There's another sequence earlier where Wan places the camera at angle so we're in one of the boys' room but can see out in the hallway. Wan loves making us wonder what's in the shadows of a house at night- one of the purest fears we can have.
Cinematographer Don Burgess (replacing the original film's John R. Leonetti) invokes the feeling of 1970s Northern London. The look of the film is blends stylization and naturalism. His camera-work- including a tracking shot through the Hodgson household- is fluid and unnerving.
Regarding the performances, Farmiga and Wilson provide warmth to an unsettling story. They make you believe in Ed and Lorraine's bond. In both films are like a light in the darkness. When they arrive at the Hodgson, it does feel that's there finally hope for the family. There's a charming scene where Ed plays the guitar and sings Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love With You." It's a scene which gives the audience and the characters some relief.
Janet and Lorraine have a conversation where we finally see how Janet is affected by the haunting. It's also the first of two scenes where each of the Warrens recount to Janet how they felt different, unable to open up and put their faith in anyone until they met one another.
I was impressed with Wolfe's performance as Janet. She's no doubt the breakout actor of the film. Wolfe plays Janet with an authentic maturity while retaining a child-like quality. You feel the weight the haunting is taking on her even though her innocence is still intact. I also liked O'Connor's portrayal of a working-class mother, which was sympathetic without overdoing anything. The always reliable character actor Simon McBurney also does fine work as Maurice Grosse, the paranormal investigator who precedes and then assists the Warrens. He has nice scene with Lorraine where he tells her the death of his daughter makes him hope there is some kind of afterlife. It's a lovely scene that adds dimension to the character of Grosse.
It also underlines Wan's optimistic side. Unsettling as the Conjuring and Insidious films are, Wan believes that good can overcome evil and life can move on after unspeakable horror. Whether you believe in the supernatural or not, moving on and being able to heal is an idea that speaks to everyone. And Wan also believes its the family bond that can get us through emotional and physical trauma. This not only applies to the families the Warrens aid but to the Warrens themselves. What I loved most about The Conjuring 2 is it ends not with a jump scare or a sequel tease but with two people in love dancing. Its such a perfect summation of these two films and Wan's horror output these past five years that I feel a Conjuring 3 isn't necessary. But with the world a continuingly dark place, we may need Farmiga and Wilson to continue being that light in the darkness.