A sinister playfulness mirrors the actions of its malevolent spirits.
Three years ago, The Conjuring spooked audiences and won critical acclaim despite essentially being The Exorcist meets Poltergeist in Amityville. Director James Wan unapologetically repurposed haunted house tropes and combined them with stark cinematography and impeccable pacing to create one of the more artful ghost stories in recent memory. A sequel was inevitable—even after the poorly-received Annabelle possessed-doll spinoff, which itself is getting a Wan-produced sequel—and The Conjuring 2 doubles down on the recycled motifs, but it does so with a sinister playfulness and audience manipulation that mirrors the actions of its malevolent spirits.
Wan squeezes every drop out of the “based on a true story” premise by opening the film with ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) holding a séance in the famed Amityville house. We even get a reenactment of the DeFeo family murders, as Lorraine—in one of her astral projection-like visions—embodies the killer as he stalks the hallways, blasting his family with a shotgun. Lorraine also receives what she believes is a grisly premonition of Ed’s death, and she ends up convincing him to begrudgingly put the whole ghost-busting thing on hold for a while. Until, of course, one of their wildest cases yet calls them across the pond.
This film’s conjuring is based on the Warrens’ involvement in the case of the Enfield Poltergeist, which was said to oppress a single mother (Frances O’Connor) and her four children in North London. The whole “why don’t they just leave” plot hole that plagues most haunted house movies is quickly dispatched because the poverty-stricken Hodgson family live in public housing. Things go awry quickly as young Janet (Madison Wolfe) begins sleepwalking, then teleporting and then speaking with the voice of a deranged old man. The Warrens try to determine if this is a legitimate possession and/or haunting (despite increasingly elaborate visual manifestations that make it obvious) while the film’s resident skeptic (Franka Potente) calls “bullshit.” There’s not much further need for summary, because you’ve seen it all before, but Wan nevertheless instills the film with enough stylish chills, fleet camera-work and winking self-awareness to make The Conjuring 2 a wild ride of its own.
The time period (the late ‘70s) takes on added character in this sequel. Ghosts and demons are a lot scarier without the lifeline of smartphones. Instead, flash bulbs pop and spools of reel-to-reel audio tape whirr. In one scene, Ed even makes an on-the-nose comment about his amazement that a gigantic shoulder-mount camcorder could be “so small and light.” The increased presence of religious iconography (from a roomful of crucifixes to invocations of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost) also calls back to the era in which the film is set—a time when people would actually run towards the Catholic Church to escape monsters.
Wan ramps up the visibility of supernatural creatures. While bare bones set pieces have always worked best for him (there’s nothing more frightening in the original film than Lili Taylor’s hide-and-clap scene), here we get manifestations of a spooky old man, a demonic Marilyn Manson-like nun and a spindly shape-shifting monster complete with a disturbing childhood nursery rhyme that channels The Babadook. It’s a testament to the filmmaker’s prowess that these monsters (reliant on jump scares as they may be) are actually a lot of fun. But just like its predecessor, The Conjuring 2 is scariest when the chills are subtle. A TV remote suddenly teleporting across the room or floorboards creaking while a little girl hides under her blankets are infinitely creepier than hulking ghouls stalking down the hallway. But unlike other scary movies of this ilk, Wan’s film seems to earn its excesses.
Not enough can be said about Wan’s camera movement. We get plenty of tracking shots, partially obscured views down long hallways and various POV shots. Along with the washed-out color scheme, this provides an atmosphere of dread that seems to toy with our senses, frightening us on a subconscious level even as our brains tell us some of the images we’re seeing can be a bit silly. Though there’s nothing approaching the hide-and-clap scene, we get one sequence with incredible use of shallow focus as the camera remains fixed on Wilson’s foregrounded face while, behind him, a spirit blurrily contorts a possessed little girl into a ghoulish old man.
You can bemoan the fact that we don’t get more of these subtler scares, but The Conjuring 2 is too entertaining to linger on that fact. At well over two hours, it definitely suffers from bloat, and the attempts at playing up the romance between long-married Ed and Lorraine seem entirely misplaced. Like most sequels, this second film is not as good as the first, but it’s also much better than most trips back to the well. Though the real-life Warrens were almost certainly manipulative charlatans, once again their alleged supernatural exploits (in the hands of the right filmmaker) have nevertheless conjured up more than enough fodder for an amusing and frightful night at the movies.