The Conjuring 2

Posted by Joel Copling on June 9, 2016

Here is a film of surprising complexity, and it's the fact that "The Conjuring 2" is, as its title suggests, a sequel that makes it so surprising. "The Conjuring," released in 2013, was a fine exercise in horror in itself because it rarely ever felt like one, and returning screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes (here joined by David Johnson and director James Wan in their writing duties) have transferred that sensation over to this second film. But there's something more here, an emotional core steeped in grief and guilt that raises it above its already fine predecessor. This, combined with sequences of uncompromising psychological horror, results in the best horror sequel in probably several decades and the best horror film since the start of this one.

Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) barely escaped their last haunting, which took place in Rhode Island, and six years later, the Amityville hoax has taken over the airwaves. The couple, who came together because they believed each other's claims in the paranormal, are the subjects of television and radio interviews that call into question their legitimacy. Another guest on one of them claims that Lorraine fabricated a vision she had, but the couple reaffirms their own claims that what happened seemed genuine at the time. It balances the entire film's narrative on the knife's edge of outright skepticism. It's a smart and thoughtful approach because it also sets the audience's minds to working out for themselves the answers to this particular mystery through a labyrinth of what may be misdirection.

By the end, of course, a decisive choice is made on the film's behalf to answer its own question, but that sense is present throughout. This means that the scares are, instead of merely predictable, inevitable. This is mirrored by Wan's formal decision to lessen the number of jump scares in favor of confronting the horror imagery head-on, and this is not because the filmmakers simply want to freak out members of the audience. Sometimes Wan and cinematographer Don Burgess frame the fright in exactly the manner you're imagining when it comes to ghoulish ghosties, tricking the viewer into looking somewhere else from where the scary thing shows up. Other times, he expects you to look into a certain place, from which the scary thing emerges, as we knew it would, creating a paradoxical sense of the unexpected because it's so expected (We almost expect Wan to mislead in these scenes, and it is refreshing that he doesn't cheat).

The segments of the film that are exceptions to both of these are its best for two reasons, each applied to a different kind of situation. One is a decision on Wan and editor Kirk M. Morri's part to offer the expected at a delayed pace from what we're anticipating. We expect, for instance, that Chekhov's Toy Fire Truck, owned by the chronic stutterer of a younger brother of the subject of the Warrens' newest case, will move of its own accord, but it doesn't do so until after three or four glances by the boy to make sure everything is kosher. We do not expect, though, the use to which a zoetrope (also technically of the Chekhov's variety) that sings a silly, sinister song is put, which showcases the film's other ability: twisting the potentially expected to become something else entirely.

It's evident in the film's very premise, which follows the Warrens across the Atlantic to London in 1977. They are visiting with the Hodgsons, a lower-middle-class family whose father ran off with a woman down the street, leaving mother Peggy (Frances O'Connor) in a lurch with four children. The main one is the younger daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe), to whom the frightening events are happening for some reason, such as her conscience being invaded by an elderly man (Bob Adrian) who died in the chair that inhabits one corner of the room (At one point, Ed holds an intelligent conversation with the spirit, in which both parties are cleverer than the other is expecting, and Wan makes the uncanny decision to blur out Janet's seeming transformation into the spirit).

The scenes of fright are given weight, both by the elderly man's sad reason for remaining in the house (Hint: It is not for the purposes of the story at hand, which gives his appearance context farther reaching than anticipated) and by the family's plight (The recent divorce, Ed reasons, is probably why the ghost is lashing out, as emotional distress is their sustenance). The performances, especially by Farmiga as a woman of broken faith in spite of her experiences and Wolfe in a brave, physically taxing role, are fantastic, and the art direction authentically conveys a sense of time and place. Some contrivances and conveniences, such as a decisive ending to a movie of such ambiguity or the decision to make one of the frightening beings a computer-generated creation among practical ones, feel like unimportant quibbles in the grand scheme of a mournful and truly special horror outing. "The Conjuring 2" is one of the year's best films.

Film Information

Patrick Wilson (Ed Warren), Vera Farmiga (Lorraine Warren), Madison Wolfe (Janet Hodgson), Frances O'Connor (Peggy Hodgson), Lauren Esposito (Margaret Hodgson), Benjamin Haigh (Billy Hodgson), Patrick McAuley (Johnny Hodgson), Simon McBurney (Maurice Grosse), Maria Doyle Kennedy (Peggy Nottingham), Simon Delaney (Vic Nottingham), Franka Potente (Anita Gregory), Bob Adrian (Bill Wilkins), Bonnie Aarons (The Nun), Javier Botet (The Crooked Man).

Directed by James Wan and written by Wan, Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes, and David Johnson.

Rated R (terror, horror violence).

134 minutes.

Released on June 10, 2016.