Director: James Wan
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Franka Potente, Simon McBurney, Lauren Esposito, Patrick McAuley, Benjamin Haigh, Simon Delaney, Maria Doyle Kennedy
In making The Conjuring 2, the sequel to the successful and very scary 2013 film, James Wan decided to take a much more relentless approach. Whereas the first movie took its time to establish an atmosphere of dread, The Conjuring 2 goes for the jugular quite often. There are a lot more jump scares, a lot more special-effects, and a lot more shots of evil creatures coming out and attacking the characters. This approach is much less effective than the one used in the first film, and while the movie isn’t nearly as scary as a result, it is still pretty darn creepy.
I don’t know what it is about James Wan and this franchise, but it really does seem to bring out the best in him. Prior to seeing the first film, I wasn’t a huge fan of the guy. I didn’t care for his debut feature Saw one bit, thought his evil doll movie Dead Silence was laughable, and was bored to tears with his 2011 ghost thriller Insidious. In all of his movies, he has shown to have a compelling sense of style (as bad as Dead Silence was, it was a visually stunning film), but when it came to delivering the scares, he always seemed to come up short.
Then came The Conjuring, the first film of his that seriously made me consider sleeping with the lights on at night (not to mention keeping my dang feet completely under the covers). While his work in The Conjuring 2 is louder and flashier, he still manages to deliver the scary movie goods. Just look at the scene involving psychic Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) and the creepy painting of a demon nun that her husband Ed (Patrick Wilson) made. The entire scene takes place in broad daylight, and yet through his use of shadows and elegant camera compositions, this scene winds up being one of the scariest scenes in the entire film. Wan doesn’t need to have a scene take place in the dead of night to generate chills.
The film’s prologue, which shows the Warren’s investigating the Amityville horror, is, unfortunately, even less effective than the silly Annabelle prologue that opened the first film. The Warrens sit around a table with the Lutz family to hold a séance to see if the house is really haunted. Lorraine travels into the spirit world, and reenacts the brutal killing spree which led the house to be haunted (it involves her cocking an invisible rifle). “This is the closest to hell that I ever want to get,” she tells Ed. It’s rather a goofy scene, and it gets things off to a pretty ho-hum start.
Cut to one year later, and we move onto London, where the Hodgson family – single mother Peggy (Francis O’Connor), daughters Margaret (Lauren Esposito) and Janet (Madison Wolfe), and sons Johnny (Patrick McAuley) and Billy (Benjamin Haigh) – are experiencing strange happenings in their rundown home. It all seems to start after Janet brings home an Ouija board she and her friend made at school (sigh), and because Janet’s the one who has been messing with it the most, she’s the one who’s victimized the most.
Meanwhile, the Warrens have stirred up quite a bit of controversy because of their work over in Amityville. For many, the Amityville haunting was nothing but a hoax, and the skeptics are coming out of the wood work calling the Warrens frauds. The screenplay by Wan, Chad and Carey Hayes, and David Leslie Johnson allows for a bit more skepticism here than they did in the original, allowing the filmmakers to approach the material in new and interesting ways.
Franka Potente co-stars as parapsychologist Anita Greggory, an extreme skeptic who wants to prove that the Hodgson haunting is nothing more than a fake. Nothing that anyone says, or what she sees, is enough to change her mind. She’s even present during a TV interview when the evil haunting the Hodgsons possesses Janet, causing the child to speak in the voice of a 72 year old man, and she still doesn’t believe it. At one point, she appears to catch Janet faking one of the hauntings in the house, although given what we’ve seen by that point, we know good and well that there’s something more going on than meets the eye.
Perhaps the most interesting and sympathetic new character is British paranormal investigator Maurice Grosse (Simon McBurney), who lost his daughter in a terrible car crash the year before, and who wants to help the Warrens find evidence that what the Hodgsons are saying is true not only to help the family, but to also bring him some comfort. If they are able to find evidence of the supernatural, then that would mean that death would not be the end, and there would be the hope of him seeing his daughter again in another life. McBurney’s scene where he reveals his motivations is one of the most touching in the film.
Lorraine is very hesitant at first to get involved in the Hodgson case because she keeps having visions of Ed dying by being impaled with a large wooden spike. It’s learned that the vision that caused Lorraine to lock herself in her room for eight days in the first film was also of Ed getting killed (I wish the movie hadn’t told us that). They, of course, do get involved, which leads to a climax where Lorraine discovers that the one way to gain power over the demon and send it back to hell is by calling it by its name. The climax, like the prologue, is also disappointing. It’s too overblown to be really scary, although the sequence where Ed wanders through the house alone after getting steamed in the eyes is quite suspenseful.
In between these two ineffective bookends is some seriously creepy stuff. Some of the film’s most effective scenes are due to the hypnotically beautiful cinematography by Don Burgess. Just look at the exterior shot of young Billy as he goes to the kitchen at night to get a glass of water, or the single take tracking shot that begins at street level, seems to float through the second story window (like a ghost), and follows each of the characters as they go about their nightly business.
The best shot, however, comes later on. Once Ed and Lorraine make it to the Hodgson’s house, they try to get the evil spirit there to speak through Janet. Janet tells them it will only do it if everyone has their backs turned. This leads to a shot with Ed in the foreground on the left side of the frame, and Janet in the background on the right. Once the spirit takes over, the background blurs, and we see Janet undergo some really unsettling physical changes. It’s seriously creepy stuff.
Like the previous film, the acting here is terrific. Wilson and Farmiga are just as solid here as they were in the previous film, while O’Connor is really effective as the Hodgson matriarch (and she’s given one of the film’s most amusing lines about how her husband took the music from the house the day he left). Potente is quite good as the main skeptic in the film, McBurney is wonderful as the sympathetic Grosse, and Wolfe is a revelation as the tormented Janet.
Whereas most sequels are content with repeating the established formula from their predecessor, The Conjuring 2 isn’t afraid to take the material in different directions. I liked the addition of skepticism (although the movie, of course, sides with the Warrens on the matter). I liked the fact that there were more people who believed in the Hodgsons haunting (including the friendly neighbors and even the local police). I even liked the twist involving the ghost that everyone believes is responsible for the haunting. James Wan has said that he probably won’t come back to direct the third movie, on account that he plans to pursue other projects, and that’s fine. I’m just anxious to see where this series goes next.
Rated R for disturbing horror images, some language
Final Grade: *** (out of ****)