James Wan, director of some of the more noteworthy horror films in recent memory and one of the highest grossing films of all time Furious 7, is a rare example of a horror movie auteur who’s able to work within the studio system. After the booming success of his indie debut Saw, Wan has been one of the few filmmakers to have some sort of consistent style and use of the craft in his work than any horror film released theatrically in the last decade. One of those entries is 2013’s The Conjuring, which gave the real life Warrens an effectively chilling cinematic tale. That ended up being so successful that it bore a sequel creatively titled The Conjuring 2. In a summer full of unnecessary or disappointing sequels, The Conjuring 2 is the shot in the arm that both the declining sequel trend and horror films in general need. There’s an elegance to this production that 90% of horror films released theatrically wouldn’t really care to do. But Wan isn’t interested in the cheap. He’s interested in the more disturbed long game of actually getting you invested before he creeps you out.
With The Conjuring 2, James Wan avoids all the major pitfalls that have befallen many a horror sequel – including his own Insidious Chapter 2 – by embracing what made the first film so memorable: a skilled but steady hand. Wan crafts his scares here with so much precision. The production design knows just how to bring the 1976 aesthetic to life for the sake of emersion, the lighting casts the perfect shadows on every individual element in a room and the camera work manages shows off the geography of a space so that the scares come from our understanding of the set rather than something popping out of a nook we didn’t see. The Conjuring 2 envelopes itself with the elegance of its design, created in just the right fashion to scare audiences without insulting them. Each jump scare, major reveal and ghostly element is built up like a Rube Goldberg machine in how flawlessly every point comes together.
The Conjuring 2 doesn’t force jumps. It earns them diligently with a remarkable confidence, using just the right amount of fantastical imagery that feels truly unnerving and otherworldly with its aesthetic. Yet, it also doesn’t short shift a solid basis in reality. The real life Enfield Poltergeist that this is based on is a highly contested paranormal event. Much of the evidence shows it was a hoax concocted by the victims and The Conjuring 2 doesn’t shy away from its reputation. Not only is that reputation utilized to put doubt in the world surrounding our setting of a small house in London, but it feeds into the internal conflict of our paranormal investigators who are trying to help these people despite their recent conflicts with what comes with the job. This plot point does get a bit hard to swallow when it’s dragged out for an inevitable turn, but the developed doubt it places is just the right set up for The Conjuring 2 to destroy any misconception of these ghostly visages seen here. In that regard, it’s probably the best example of the many bland “based on a true story” narratives that has plagued horror for the last few years.
All of this still hinges on the spine of what made the first film so effective: characters we actually care about. All of the style would signify zilch if it wasn’t for how these haunts effect our players. The Conjuring 2 has a similar basic set up of the first otherworldly conflict, with a down on its luck family being disturbed by ghosts and The Warrens putting themselves in danger. Yet, the details are significantly changed, whether to highlight the closer relationship The Warrens end up having with this family or the crushing torture these kids go through when one of their siblings is infected with this spirit. Even the ghosts manage to have some engaging life brought to them, but not in an overcomplicated backstory fashion that watered down the terror of Insidious Chapter 2. Instead, the nightmare creatures are rooted in something engaging like an element of universal childhood experiences or the fear of getting old & losing touch with family.
Luckily, The Conjuring 2 doesn’t just one up itself on scares. It also brings a new level of nuance to the characters. The Warrens have experienced one of their bigger bumps as paranormal investigators, with Vera Farmiga‘s Lorraine being seriously against the idea of taking on another case after a disturbing prothetic vision. The conflict this creates between her and Patrick Wilson‘s Ed is believable, never creating a rift too big to completely throw off their abilities as investigators yet enough to make the emotional stakes of The Conjuring 2 build on their relationship in an engrossing fashion. This spills over into our British family trying to work past this poltergeist, who we see are struggling to make some sort of ends meet and are only further destroyed by this demon’s hold on the youngest daughter Janet. Janet is played by Madison Wolfe, who’s break out performance here manages to capture both the naive childlike innocence that initially endears us and the possessed disturbing context that repels in a fashion not achieved since Linda Blair in 1974’s The Exorcist.
Honestly, The Conjuring 2 pulls off a lot of horror concepts that people have been struggling to recapture lately. The opening Amityville sequence blasts anything the fourteen Amityville movies have tried to pull off out of the water, the Crooked Man character is probably the best version of The Slender Man creature we’ll ever get on film and the various films that have tried & failed to be The Exorcist in the last forty years don’t hold a candle to James Wan’s work at building characters to emotionally toy with here. The Conjuring 2 shows that Wan isn’t just a committed builder of scares as much as he is a genuinely thrilling visual storyteller. He knows that upping the ante isn’t just about having a bigger budget to spook people. It’s about bringing back what we loved in a new context that shatters expectations. That’s what makes him the strongest voice in mainstream horror today and The Conjuring 2 the strongest light for scares in theaters we’ve seen in quite some time.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Elvis Presley Covers