The Conjuring 2 (2016) dir. James Wan.
Written: Carey Hayes, Chad Hayes, James Wan and David Leslie Johnson.
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor, and Madison Wolfe.

“There’s a five minute Amityville Horror sequence in this movie that’s better than most of the Amityville Horror movies you’ve ever seen.”

These are the wonderfully succinct words of Brad Jones, aka The Cinema Snob, who does a better job than I ever could of stating exactly why The Conjuring 2 is so good: not everything it does is original, but it’s astonishingly good at it.

In a scene that blows the prologue to its predecessor out of the water, The Conjuring 2 begins with paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) performing a séance at the Amityville House in a spectacularly shot sequence that solidly sets the film’s bar for spookiness from the get-go. It is during this scene that Lorraine encounters the Nun, a blasphemously guised specter that goes on to haunt the film’s subplot. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, single mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four children begin experiencing some ghostly goings-on. The second-oldest daughter, Janet (Madison Wolfe) becomes of particular interest to the entity haunting their London home, and the paranormal incidents continue until they require the attention of the Warrens. Thus goes director James Wan’s take on the Enfield poltergeist, the second story pulled from the case files of the real life Ed and Lorraine Warren.

A bit like the first film, something that The Conjuring 2 does really, really well is the utilization of unbalanced frames and out-of-focus objects. Every time there was a shot with a suspicious amount of empty space on one side, I got really, really antsy, and the film’s suspense is built through an agonizingly slow burn of unrivaled atmospheric creepiness. Every jump scare – of which there are very few – is definitely earned (check The Stinger below for more specific examples) but it’s worth noting that there’s a few more this time around than in the first film. That is, The Conjuring, no number.

Let’s talk about both films, though: what’s so disappointing about The Conjuring 2 is that, watching it in conjunction with The Conjuring, they follow almost beat for beat the same exact formula. They open with a prologue that introduces a recurring specter, there’s a children’s game and a music box of some sort that’s twisted for high-reward scares as the hauntings escalate, and the form of the film jumps between the divided plotlines of the Warrens and their soon-to-be-patients until they converge in the middle. From the uninterrupted tracking shots that introduce the family to the frequent use of POV and voyeuristic reverse shots, even the cinematography in the sequel follows the first. The Conjuring was rife with deliberate echoes and references to Poltergeist, The Exorcist, and other films from the haunted house subgenre, and the second installment borrows just as much – but as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Wan draws from a very clear place of appreciation for these older films, and don’t think for a minute that he’s merely remaking – rather, Wan reinvents these familiar concepts with absolute aplomb and ingenuity.

What freshness The Conjuring 2 does bring to the table lies in its sheer breadth. The Conjuring 2 is, in a word, “more.” More scares, more plot, more characterization and more characters in general. More everything. You liked the scene in The Conjuring where the Warrens and Perrons had breakfast together? You thought it was cute and charming? Well guess what, there’s a solid fifteen minutes of The Conjuring 2 where Ed goes full Dad-mode and flits around the Hodgson house like a handyman from heaven, crooning on a guitar to cheer up the kids and fixing Peggy’s laundry machine. You liked the use of period music to set the scene? Buddy, there’s a lot more where that came from. The Conjuring 2 is the Olympic swan dive after its predecessor merely toed the water; everything from the first film is back, much more bold and confident. The Conjuring was a remarkable film and the return of its cleverer and more successful elements doesn’t disparage The Conjuring 2, so despite its familiarity the sequel succeeds.

In The Conjuring 2, much more time than in the first is dedicated to fleshing out the world of the film and the depth of the characters that inhabit it. Its most notable innovation from the first is that this time, the investigation becomes much more intense as Ed and Lorraine must deflect hoax allegations from a neighborhood skeptic. The supporting cast doesn’t disappoint – O’Connor excels as Peggy Hodgson and Wolfe succeeds as one of the best child performances in a long while. Franka Potenta plays Anita Gregory, the aforementioned skeptic, with perfectly tight-lipped smugness. Speaking personally, I think that Simon McBurney stole the show in a very subdued, but standout performance as London paranormal investigator Maurice Grosse. And of course, Wilson and Farmiga absolutely own their roles as the Warrens by somehow having even more chemistry with each other than before. There’s that word again – “more.” The Conjuring 2 is the epitome of “bigger and better.”

However, this comes at a price. By including more plot and more characterization, the film really bloats its runtime and noticeably drags. Clocking in at two hours and fourteen minutes, The Conjuring 2 is only twenty-two minutes longer than The Conjuring, but the first film didn’t spend quite as much time with the Warrens before calling them to ghostbust. Rather than the haunted family being the A-plot and the Warrens’ activities prior to their involvement being the B-plot, The Conjuring 2 places the affairs of the Warrens and the Hodgsons on separate but equal ground which makes the constant crossing of the pond a little excessive. James Wan has stated that the addition of the Nun – whose presence lingers in some of the Warrens’ scenes – was a last-minute decision that required eleventh hour reshoots, which makes me wonder if the original cut of the film was more efficient.

Despite promising and delivering on an expansion and escalation of all the things that made The Conjuring great, The Conjuring 2’s dedication to “more” is just as much a strength as it is a flaw. By sticking with the Perron family for longer periods of time before cutting back to the Warrens, The Conjuring felt much more cohesive, where each development seemed to slide seamlessly into the next. The first half of The Conjuring 2, on the other hand, felt more like a slideshow of very effective, but rather independent short movies. I believe that, again, this flaw stems from the plot’s significantly divided attention. A good haunted house movie already has a naturally slow pace because creating ample suspense requires the very strategic doling out of information. The Conjuring 2 has phenomenal suspense, but it is constantly starting and stopping. The (reasonable) excess in which The Conjuring 2 switches gears from the Hodgsons to the Warrens robs it of momentum in a way that The Conjuring’s more focused plot didn’t.

The first Conjuring also benefits, I think, from its lack of comfortability. James Wan knew he had made something great with The Conjuring, and that’s why The Conjuring 2 has much more dramatic scare tactics and a drastically more spectacular climax. Although effective, there are so much more subtle moments from the first film that I felt weren’t matched by anything in the second. Four scenes from the first film stick out to me in particular – the gut-wrenchingly suspenseful “third clap,” Vera’s vision on the lake, and the folding laundry scene. These scares didn’t try too hard or lure the characters/audience into a bigger scare right around the corner, they just happened, and were very effective in their singular moments. More evidence of The Conjuring 2 getting too loud is its climax, which goes a lot farther beyond the flying furniture and hectic exorcism of the first. While gripping, it’s an almost distractedly overblown tone shift, heavy on the special effects, that feels a little bit like going abruptly from Alien to Aliens. It’s also hampered by the sudden dumping of information onto audiences in the last half hour or so, which seems egregiously rushed in such a long film.

If you liked The Conjuring, you have probably already seen The Conjuring 2, but I recommend it anyway. Those looking for more insight into the Warrens’ relationship, or an opportunity to see Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga be absolutely amazing together for two more hours, will appreciate the amount of plot dedicated to their characterization and development. Anyone frightened by the first film ought to be just as scared of the second, given that it’s the same master looking at his old tools and thinking “alright, now let’s see what this baby can really do.”

However, that causes a problem with The Conjuring as a franchise.  If The Conjuring 2 is James Wan pulling out all the stops, what’s left for The Conjuring 3? I mean, let’s not kid ourselves here: the franchise has been wildly successful to the point where its second installment is a bona fide summer blockbuster, and its spin-off Annabelle is getting a sequel, too, and The Conjuring 2’s Nun is getting a spin-off of her own. Assuming Wan stays at the helm of the franchise, he has to realize that lightning won’t strike twice. Both The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 have received notable acclaim, and the typhoon of praise for these movies is very justified, but I’m not the only person to criticize the latter for biting off more than it can chew. I understand that these films are “based on a true story” but a hypothetical third installment would need to find enough wiggle room to do something different if it wants to avoid making The Conjuring a problematically homogeneous and predictable franchise. Once is happenstance and twice is coincidence – a third film following the same formula but with “more” again wouldn’t just be tellingly lazy, but dangerous. The second film’s stakes are dramatically higher than the first; if a third film escalates in the same way, we might have Ed and Lorraine deal with Satan himself next time. And then where do you go from there? The Conjuring 2 took a bold, entertaining step that paid off with the fear factor, but push the boundary too far and you’ll be a long way from where you started from. It would behoove future Conjuring projects to keep themselves grounded, lest we get sequel escalation on par with the worst of an 80s slasher series’ latter installments. Conjuring 3: Eddy’s Dead, anyone?

DOCTOR’S ORDERS:

The Conjuring 2 is a fantastic film whose biggest flaw is being too big. A more complex plot, a larger cast, and deeper characterization make it bulkier and less efficient than its more straight-forward predecessor, but it’s rewarding regardless and holds its own weight with top-notch scares and solid performances. Derivative? Yes to a distracting fault, but if The Conjuring 2 did nothing that hasn’t already been done, then it’s hardly ever been done better. Four stars out of five.

stars4

THE STINGER:

When writing a review, I avoid describing the whole film scene by scene. To that end, that means that there are sometimes stray observations, specific reactions, and noted reflections that just can’t make it into the review proper, for the sake of either efficiency or so as not to spoil it. That said, a spoiler alert is in full effect for the various hot takes listed below…

  1. Seeing the trailer for Lights Out right before the movie had me tensing up every time somebody turned off a light. Seeing the trailer for Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates right before the movie just felt personally insulting.
  1. It’s literally impossible to talk about The Conjuring 2 without talking about the sheer, unbridled genius that was the scene with Lorraine, the Nun, and the painting. An absolutely stellar idea that scared the pants off me, even if the climax was a fake-out. The way that it was foreshadowed with Janet’s 70s stud posters is hilarious in retrospect.
  1. Javier Botet ([REC], Mama) is horrifying as the Crooked Man. Hell, the Crooked Man could absolutely carry a film all by himself. Unfortunately, due to the film’s bloated plot, he felt a little underutilized, with his last act appearance feeling frustratingly short. The man deserves credit – you know you’ve done something right when people accuse your physical, bodily performance of being a CGI effect.
  1. Although I said nothing in the film matches the unplugged, singular creepiness of The Conjuring’s more simplistic scares, The Conjuring 2 still has an extended sequence where Janet – sitting in a dead man’s chair to host the ghost Bill Wilkins as she’s interviewed by Ed – slowly transforms into the ghostly grandpa just outside the focus of the camera. I absolutely live for “something’s off in the background” atmospheric scares, and noticing this effect is so chilling because once you do notice it, you wonder how long it had been like that before you did.
  1. Speaking of Bill Wilkins, in the first interview scene, Bill (possessing Janet) reveals his name in the form of a knock-knock joke. He starts chanting his name over and over, which caused me and my friend – and I’d expect anyone with the same frame of reference – to start choking on how hard we were stifling our laughter. Science rules!
  1. What is up with The Conjuring franchise and creepy chairs? Rocking chairs, dining chairs, recliners…I would put money on James Wan being able to make a feature-length horror film about nothing but chairs.
  1. One of my favorite moments from The Conjuring that I didn’t mention is the levitation during the exorcism scene. It’s so unexpected, yet so masterfully done with such perfect timing. It’s a very quiet and subtle moment in an otherwise tense scene, like the eye of the storm. There’s no moment like that in the climax of The Conjuring 2. Part of me thinks that that makes it less effective, but the other part thinks it services the exhausting and unrelenting nature of the climax. Besides, didn’t I say that the biggest flaw of The Conjuring 2 is how much it rips off its predecessor?
  1. Janet being yanked through the ceiling and into the locked-off room was a great “oh shit” moment, but the payoff was pretty disappointing. The crosses all slowly turning upside-down one by one was hilariously over-the-top in the best possible way. It worked.
  1. Ed and Lorraine have a lot of really touching scenes together, which makes me think that The Conjuring 2 could have very easily been marketed as a heartwarming romantic comedy. Ghosts and demons aside, this is the kind of movie that makes you believe in true love. I mean that.
  1. There’s a scene in the second half of the movie where the youngest Hodgson boy, Johnny, stands up to the “bullies” haunting his house is extremely satisfying. It’s always great when “horror movie kids” aren’t useless victims and actually fight back against their adversarial fiend. I mean, I know: they’re not kids, not Van Helsing. But Johnny definitely qualified himself for the Monster Squad that day.
  1. This film is guilty on two counts of gratuitous Elvis, but dammit, Patrick Wilson is so stupidly charming that I’ll allow it. Also, “Elvis” is an anagram for “EVILS.” Will The Conjuring 3 deal with the Warrens’ harrowing investigation of a haunting at Graceland? Get on it, James!
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