You gotta give director James Wan credit: he knows how to craft an effectively scary sequence. The Conjuring 2, like the film that preceded it, is (mostly) a master class in horror movie filmmaking with sequences that ratchet up the tension and refuse to give the audience an easy release.
The “boo!” moment has long been the go-to horror movie trope, particularly in supernatural films like this one, where a character walks alone in the dark, following the sound of a creaky door or a whisper or toy truck. They reach the source of the disturbance, and then “boo!” Oh, it’s you, dear. Or, it’s only the cat. Or, it’s a ghost! Well, what are you going to do. In any event, mystery solved.
But there are scenes in The Conjuring 2 where a young girl wakes up downstairs on the floor, walks back to her room in the dark, hears a strange whisper or sees something moving when it shouldn’t be, and at the height of her panic… she turns on the light, and there’s nothing there. And she cowers under the covers, terrified.
And we’re terrified, too.
The young girl is Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe, in a startling performance), who lives with her mother Peggy (Frances O’Connor) and three siblings in a creepy London estate that is quite clearly haunted. American paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) are on the case.
That case would be the famed Enfield Poltergeist, which made headlines for years in the late 1970s until being revealed as a hoax: one of the children was caught on camera faking the “paranormal” activity.
But there’s something about stories like this – and the Amityville Horror, which also (briefly) features in the movie – that have a lasting impact. We’re fascinated by the purported mystery, even when reality provides us a clear explanation.
The Warrens, too – oft criticized as being frauds – make questionable protagonists for a horror movie franchise (and still have plenty of exploits for future films). But as played by Wilson and Farmiga, they’re a likable husband-and-wife team who have nothing but the best of intentions, and we come to care for them.
Like the earlier film, much of this one involves characters walking around in the dark, calling out spirits and communicating with the dead, facing demonic possessions, and so forth. Plotwise, there’s precious little new here to differentiate it from your typical haunted house scare show.
But the scary stuff works, for 90% of the film, anyway. The Conjuring 2 never lags or loses pace or feels overlong, despite a 132-minute runtime that seems crazy for a horror movie. On technical skill alone, this is probably a better and perhaps even scarier experience than the excellent original.
But modern horror formula requirements specify that everything get wrapped up in a neat little package by the end. And while nothing could diminish the effectiveness of the first two acts of the movie, my heart sank a little when the film goes heavy on CGI effects and clear-cut solutions to the poltergeist problem.
The less we see and know the more we fear, and Wan knows this for most of the movie but loses his grip towards the end, which takes this mostly-excellent sequel down a notch below the original.
But someday, Wan or another director will use the techniques displayed in these films, remove the schlocky Hollywood story elements, and come away with the scariest movie ever made. Until then, these Conjuring flicks are pretty close.