Horror sequels have an unfortunate tendency to exude contempt for their audience. More often than not, the same formula is conscripted, wrangling selfsame plot lines (often in a new location or with new characters) that encompass similar beats and familiar frights. 9 Nightmare on Elm Street movies, 10 Halloween films and 12 Friday the 13th flicks can speak to the process. Rinse, repeat, rank in the cash. And while there’s nothing distinctively different to James Wan’s approach this second time around the Conjuring fairgrounds (save for a somewhat unnecessary additional 20 minutes pumped into the runtime), The Conjuring 2 remains a massively effective instrument for scaring the living shit out of oneself.
Like many horror sequels attempt and fail to accomplish, The Conjuring 2 takes careful stock of the characters it introduced in the first film, in this case within a nightmarish prelude, building on existing relationship with modest drama and vivid consternation. Following a run-in with evil of the purest form at the iconic Amittyville horror house, Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) urges husband and partner-in-exorcism Ed (Patrick Wilson) to abandon their practice of ghoul cleansing. If only for a while. Back at home, a doomy specter continues to torment Lorraine with visions of her husband’s violent death. Like an eerie riff on a buddy cop comedy, the pair are almost helplessly pulled from that short-lived retirement for one last job.
That job finds its inspiration in another one of the Warren’s most well-known real-life cases, the Enfield Poltergeist. Lovingly nicknamed “England’s Amityville”, a malicious force holes up across the proverbial pond at the Hodgson’s run-down north London residence where good-to-do Janet (a convincingly petrified Madison Wolfe) has earned herself a demonic sidekick after fiddling with a DIY Ouija board. The Hodgsons are an unassuming, lower-class bunch, led by single mother Peggy (Frances O’Connor) who, after a number of incidents involving self-propelled furniture and apparating daughters, allows the haunting to become a media circus. Hoping to elicit aid from religious organizations suited to ward off such evil, Peggy turns to Maurice Grosse (Simon McBurney) who does his best to assist the preyed upon household. The family dynamic, particularly the relationship between siblings Margaret (Lauren Esposito), Johnny (Patrick McAuley) and Billy (Benjamin Haigh), builds itself up to be a significant narrative factor but ultimately falls victim to being underwritten, especially in later bits.
Regardless, Wan takes his time developing the plot over in Cockney town and builds his sinister stock one devious ham bone at a time. Visually, he leans on negative space to crushing effect. Children whisper like hypnotized hounds at darkened corners or tiptoe one creaking floorboard at a time towards a dimmed blanket fort, the otherwise benign opening of which comes to resemble a monstrous maw. Like Batman nemesis Bane, darkness is Wan’s ally and he uses it to his every advantage. The Malaysian-born Australian director weaponizes anticipation, priming the hairs on the back of our neck as if with some hidden Van de Graaff generator. Scenes creep on in silence, with Joseph Bishara’s score hiding around the same corner as some monster or other and just as likely to spook you six inches from your seat.
That it takes a full hour for the paths of the Warrens and the Hodgsons to cross and you hardly ever notice speaks to Wan’s skill as a master camp fire storyteller. That first hour is so overstuffed with dread, you don’t notice the length spoon on. And rightfully so. Rather than shoving his characters to their starting position, Wan works at an enviably loose pace, one that doesn’t hurry the pieces into place but rather organically massages them exactly onto their mark, right in the nick of time. Take for example a scene in which Ed Warren picks up a guitar and offers a rendition of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling In Love” lip curl and all. It’s humanizing and sparks investment in these lives; a balmy detour, the disquieting eye of the storm, few horror movies take in their final stretch. Even though Conjuring 2 creeps uncharacteristically past the two hour mark, an extreme rarity for a modern horror film, there are few scenes I would liked to see omitted.
Another unexpected turn, this sequel actually benefits from having not one but two demonic presences; the crooked man and the white-washed scary-as-hell nun-tergesit. Whereas most sequels that employ the double villain card suffer from slacklined focus, The Conjuring 2 does standout work making each ghostly entity worth of fear before eventually reconciling the two plot lines into one cohesive, mostly satisfying explanation. Everything does gel a good bit too squishily by the end, and there’s not a ton of narrative reasoning as to why these malevolent presences are where they are or their greater diabolical schema, but the subterfuge of frequent jumps and ominous aura ably distracts us from The Conjuring 2’s less flattering narrative qualities.
Putting the Conjuring franchise’s Petri dish under the microscope, one shall discover a vicious virus at play. That virus is the MPAA, in this case maliciously trying to wipe the slate clean of good PG-13 horror movies. As was the case with the first installation, there’s nothing concretely explicit in The Conjuring 2 that warrants its R-rating – you’ll find far more brutish violence and even blood in this week’s other wide release Warcraft (not an endorsement). No, The Conjuring 2 has been bequeathed its adults-only rating for “terror and horror violence.” A.K.A. it’s a scary horror movie. It’s not hard to read between the lines on this one. According to the MPAA, if a horror movie is effective, i.e. contains “terror”, it is not suitable for teenagers beneath the age of 17. A troubling, nay, damning precedent indeed.
CONCLUSION: ‘The Conjuring 2 ‘understands the virtue of patience in a way that most studio horror films do not and the result is all the scarier for it. Building on the mythology of the Warrens while upping the ante in terms of pure body-shaking frights, ‘The Conjuring 2’ shows James Wan confidently steering the best horror franchise that exists today into familiar, but nonetheless bloodcurdling, waters.