Given the horror genre’s long history of and deep affinity for paranormal hauntings, “true” stories, and projects with lots of sequel potential, it’s pretty amazing that Hollywood didn’t consider a series centered around Ed and Lorraine Warren years ago. Sure, some of their most famous cases have been brought to the big screen in the past, but the idea of following the husband and wife, played by the same actors, from investigation to investigation writes itself. Of course, that’s now the basis for The Conjuring movies, and the great news is that the franchise is off to a great start, with director James Wan succeeding his 2013 hit with The Conjuring 2, a flawed but equally terrifying follow-up.
Picking up the story of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) about six years after the events of the first movie, The Conjuring 2 begins with the paranormal investigators earning worldwide notability for their work on the Amityville case – but Lorraine in a state of exhaustion. Personal and horrific visions involving a demon dressed as a nun have begun to haunt her, and with critics and skeptics working to try and disprove their work, Lorraine isn’t sure if she can continue consulting work. Unfortunately, this is at the same time as what would become one of the Warren’s biggest cases begins to unfold in the London Borough of Enfield in England.
In the small British town, Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) struggles to maintain a home as a single mother of four children, but finds things get exponentially harder when a demonic presence begins to terrorize the residence. The paranormal presence specifically targets Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe), the youngest daughter, and at night she is subject to a wide variety of terrors – ranging from waking up in the living room instead of her bed, to being physically attacked and bitten. As the case begins to attract attention in the country, the Catholic Church calls on Ed and Lorraine to investigate the happenings – hoping that they can either determine that it’s all a hoax, or possibly rid the house of the evil that persists there.
The worst thing a sequel can do is just be a carbon copy of the original, and had The Conjuring 2 fallen deep into that trap it would have been particularly brutal, given the number of paranormal haunting movies we see every year. And while the movie does feature many of the staples of the subgenre – a hand partially forced by basic adherence to a “true” story – it succeeds by revealing some new and different tricks up its sleeve narratively that manage to both scare and surprise. The movie also changes things up from the first simply by giving voice to the many skeptics who Ed and Lorraine Warren combated over the course of their careers, and while it’s pretty clear what team the film is playing for, it adds a certain level of depth to the story in just having the Warrens actually express doubt about the validity of what’s going on in the Hodgson household.
The script by Carey & Chad Hayes as well as James Wan and David Leslie Johnson deserves a lot of credit for the way in which it advances the story of Ed and Lorraine Warren while also presenting them a new and different case to investigate, but particular choices do result in some issues in both the pacing and structure. Specifically, while The Conjuring had the Warrens checking out the Perron household within the first act of the movie, the duo and the events transpiring at the Hodgson’s council house are kept apart for a surprising fraction of The Conjuring 2 - providing time to catch up with the Warrens while also escalating events in Enfield. While consistent creeps and frights prevent things from ever getting anywhere even near “boring,” Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are best as the Warrens when they are in the heat of an investigation – exercising their knowledge while providing needed emotional support to each other – and the sequel puts off that portion of the story for a bit too long.
What makes The Conjuring 2 worth seeing is just the work of James Wan, who returns to the horror genre with real passion and effectively reminds us why it’s been his home for so many years. His work with cinematographer Don Burgess is striking and effective, as the camera is rarely kept stagnant, and the movement instills a wonderful paranoia in the atmosphere that makes the audience constantly fear what may be lurking just beyond the range of the lens. Most importantly, there is clear evidence of deep knowledge when and when not to unleash a scare, and Wan orchestrates it so the “when nots” drive you further to the edge of your seat in anticipation of all the “whens.”
James Wan further establishes himself as one of modern horror’s most respectable filmmakers simply in the way he chooses to petrify his audience. Jump scares that can be cheap and exhausting are peppered in to get the audience’s adrenaline flowing, but Wan’s talent is in the more subtle, slow, and disturbing material. There are moments in The Conjuring 2 where you have to take an extra record to register exactly what your eyes are seeing, and upon recognition there is what I can basically describe as the feeling of your brain curdling. It was a keystone of the first movie, and is thankfully back in the sequel.
Between the fantastic talent of and chemistry between Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, and the vision of James Wan, The Conjuring 2 demonstrates incredible potential for the emerging franchise – particularly when you consider that the Warrens have claimed that their career together as investigators spanned over 10,000 cases. It’s a tense and scary sequel that surpasses its flaws with excellent performances, a solid story, and great technique.