True horror classics come along with criminal infrequency, but The Conjuring was a rare inductee into that exclusive club. The film, which chronicled one of several hauntings probed by real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), was an exquisitely unnerving exercise in sustained terror. Director James Wan, who cut his horror teeth with Saw and Insidious, crafted one of the most genuinely effective haunted-house thrillers ever made, a film that excelled at keeping the audience in a state of perpetual dread for two hours. I walked out of The Conjuring feeling knotted up in my muscles and tight in my jaw, exhausted from the experience of watching something that knew exactly how and when to turn the screws. And, unlike most horror films, The Conjuring came home with me, filling me with that sense of unease in darkened rooms that only the best horror films can pull off. It sounds unpleasant, but it’s not. To a horror fan, it’s a good thing.
The Warrens investigated many hauntings in their storied career, Amityville among them, which rendered The Conjuring one of the rare horror franchises where sequels make perfect sense, and so now here is the rather unimaginatively titled The Conjuring 2 to return the duo to the big screen. Yet The Conjuring 2, effective as it is in places, doesn’t hit those same heights that the first outing did. The law of diminishing returns firmly in place, the film falls into the common sequel trap of going bigger as a reflex, leading to a lesser overall experience. The subtle confidence displayed in the original only sporadically rears its head this time.
Where Amityville was teased at the conclusion of the first film, that famous haunting is only deployed as an opener here, with the Warrens looking into the veracity of the claims and Lorraine, gifted with “the sight,” quickly learning that this is no hoax. The film then quickly pivots across the pond to track the Hodgson family, a large brood headed by a struggling single mother (Frances O’Connor) and living in a council house in the London borough of Enfield. Financial problems have beset the Hodgsons since the family’s patriarch skipped out on them, and their fortunes take an added blow when a malevolent force begins to torment them within their run-down home, fixating primarily on youngest daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe). Janet begins sleepwalking nightly, always ending up in or near the raggedy easy chair in the corner of the living room. She also begins having conversations with herself, occasionally speaking in the voice of an elderly man. As the disturbances get worse, the media picks up the scent and the case gets widely publicized. Yet even under intense public scrutiny, the Hodgsons find little assistance, with many experts dismissing their story as an elaborate ruse perpetrated by imaginative children.
When Ed and Lorraine hear tell of the case, they are reluctant to lend a hand, largely due to the psychic toll all the ghost hunting has taken on Lorraine, as well as the fact that the entity she encountered at Amityville has taken a particular interest in her. However, the Warrens do ultimately opt to look into the Enfield case to determine whether or not evidence exists to merit the Catholic Church’s involvement. Lorraine’s otherworldly perceptiveness doesn’t ping in the Hodgson house and the couple need to suss out if the things they are witnessing really are on the level. The Hodgson’s strife seems legitimate, yet the smoking gun never quite smokes enough to satisfy the investigation’s needs.
The Enfield case, like Amityville itself, is infamous for its hoax claims, with Janet caught on tape bending spoons and throwing chairs, which she blamed on the poltergeist, and, in sharp contrast to the original, The Conjuring 2 allows the Warrens some skepticism about their subjects. Yet that angle is rendered worthless by the film since we have been shown several times over that the hauntings are indeed authentic. If the film really wanted to build some ambiguity into the proceedings, then it should have been structured so that everything we witnessed contained some measure of inconclusiveness for whether or not it could have been Janet and the kids pulling stunts for attention. Repeatedly, we see objects flying across the house of their own volition and are jolted by sudden appearances of spiteful apparitions. Giving the Warrens a Scully side is an intriguing tack for a Conjuring sequel to take, but doing so when we know their doubts are unfounded simply feels like wasted effort.
Wan has become one of the horror genre’s most skillful craftsmen, so it’s no surprise how many of The Conjuring 2’s tense moments and scares are effective. Few people can do buildup and release better than Wan, and he knows how to generate deeply unsettling imagery. However, the issue here is that the central spook, a crotchety, Cockney-accented old rotter named Bill Wilkins, isn’t quite as disturbing as Bathsheba, the inhuman presence running amok in that dimly-lit farmhouse from before. And the demon that plagues Lorraine, taking the blasphemous from of a hideous nun, feels like an emissary from Wan’s Insidious franchise rather than something that fits into the more comparatively grounded spookhouse niche that The Conjuring has carved out. By the time the entity begins taking on the spindly, Jack Skellington-esque form of “the crooked man” from one of the children’s playthings, The Conjuring 2 has effectively cast aside the restraint that made its predecessor so chilling.
Wilson and Farmiga do solid work again, alternatively commanding and vulnerable as the situation calls for. Yet, in spite of the fantastical nature of their profession, Ed and Lorraine are fairly dull characters, Mulder and Scully recast as a fuddy-duddy married couple. Ed is a font of dad humor and Lorraine just looks perpetually concerned. They aren’t the most dynamic protagonists a ghostbusting horror series could hope to have, and the film has places a curious amount of investment in the inherent sweetness of their bond, which doesn’t land like Wan thinks it does. The film is also overlong, and feels it, with confounding digressions like Ed strumming a guitar and singing an Elvis-voiced rendition of “Can't Help Falling in Love” in its entirety. Where The Conjuring was cut lean to the bone, The Conjuring 2 has some major fat deposits.
And yet, too much of the movie works for it to be discarded outright. There are many spots where that old Conjuring magic is in full force, where Wan is working at the peak of his skills, and those moments make up for a lot of the demerits. A horror movie as adroit as The Conjuring doesn’t come along too often, and a horror sequel that isn’t merely a disposable rehash is almost as rare a bird. Still, when the Warrens set off on their next X-File, one hopes that something stronger is conjured up.
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