During Ed and Lorraine Warren’s (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) investigation of the Amityville horror, Lorraine Warren encounters hell incarnate during a seance in an opening sequence to The Conjuring 2 that is orchestrated with neo-horror precision, combining old school tropes and new era scare tactics.
After amassing a popular following through the Amityville case, the Warrens are requested in Enfield, where they encounter “London’s Amityville,” a case in which a child is possessed by a deceased elderly man who refuses to move out.
The Hodgson family’s house is a prime locale for things that go bump in the night. It is drab, rundown, and creaky. Immediately we are set up with pieces of mise en scene that will prove to terrorize us in the long run: a stuttering child’s zoetrope inside a tent fort, a ouija board under a bed, a self-moving swing in the yard. Any and all of these items are prepared to be manipulated for our equal parts detriment and delight (which ones actually do I will leave abstract for fear of spoilers).
In act one of The Conjuring 2, director James Wan toys with us, poking and prodding at our nerves like a doctor with a rubber mallet. The family is made target by the house’s paranormal entity each night. The props and set pieces in play move around at Wan’s whim, and we watch helpless, waiting for the inevitable. Wan takes his time, though, drawing out every drop of suspense from scenes that are almost playful in their delayed gratification.
It is like some sadistic comedy. Each night in the house has a sort of heightening bit to it, a piece of the set that is manipulated to higher degrees of persuasion with every given minute until the scene culminates in a final kick.
Thus is the directorial touch of Wan, who delivers here a worthy successor to the surprise hit The Conjuring. Wan’s passion for the genre is evident in every camera movement and piece of blocking. His care for the genre and his place in it is indicative of comments he has made vis a vis bringing horror the respect it has lost over the years.
The Conjuring 2 shows the promise of horror regaining this lost respect. It terrifies with a chill rather than a scream, using a genre formula that is well worn but executed with that already in mind.
Young actress Madison Wolfe brings a devilish performance as the possessed victim. Not only is she devilish, but she is also deeply sympathetic; incredibly nuanced in relation to the lot of characters we usually get with a horror piece. Her character is largely reminiscent of the most famous possessee in horror cinema, Linda Blair in The Exorcist, a similarity that is off-putting but one that is also complimentary of Wolfe’s performance here.
Farmiga and Wilson, too, bring in strong performances as the investigative duo. Beyond scenes of scares, they provide scenes of family, humor, and character depth that is necessary in a sequel of any kind, but one that is almost always absent in a horror sequel.
If it was in question following The Conjuring and Insidious, James Wan has solidified with The Conjuring 2 his status as a new master of horror. Based on consistency alone, this is true. The care and attention of his craft is testament to his skill as a director, and we see it played out again here. Even if it is not the scariest movie to grace theaters, or even the scariest of Wan’s, The Conjuring 2 shows a playful yet precisely controlled eye for genre that is hard to find elsewhere in the horror landscape.
Is The Conjuring 2 a perfect horror film? No. The second act drags as second acts are wont to do, and the suspenseful scenes in this act are rendered less suspenseful as a result. There are plot conveniences that move the film into its final act. The narrative premise is conventional (although, to be fair, the Warrens’ work is the basis of this conventional premise in many respects). None of this, though, is enough to sully the entire film, which is a solid sequel that perhaps loses a bit of the flair of the original.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)