Essentially another run-of-the-mill plot surrounding demonic possession, regardless of the reportedly true plot strands, the first Conjuring managed to nevertheless grab audiences tight, keeping a decidedly creepy tone beating away while scattering potent jump scares and valuable characterisation throughout. James Wan, who burst onto the world stage with low budget, gritty horror film Saw, had made what is arguably his most accomplished film to date.
It’s three years later, and Wan has delivered his sequel. And while Wan’s eye for potent framing and stylish camerawork is certainly still on display, and there are more than enough unsettling sequences to get the heart racing, certain pacing issues, a touch of déjà vu, and a few too many screenplay elements left unfulfilled leave The Conjuring 2 looking slightly weaker than its predecessor. That being said, it’s still a solid entry for the genre.
Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are back as Lorraine and Ed Warren, the real-life demonologists said to have tackled some of the most well known cases involving malicious spirits. We kick off the film with one of the Warrens’ most widely reported investigations, the Amityville case that took place in the mid 70s. It’s a well crafted if unspectacular intro, and it does include a key malicious entity, but it seems to only be included to tie the film with an event horror buffs will be well aware of.
Over in London, we’re introduced to single mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four children. When youngest daughter Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe) begins to suffer from increasingly troubling hauntings, it isn’t long before the entire family is being affected. Word ends up spreading to the Warrens, who aren’t exactly ready to jump across the pond to tackle more demons. Lorraine, you see, has experienced troubling visions of Ed’s death and has taken it as a sign they need to give their work a break. Nevertheless, despite Lorraine’s apprehension, the Warrens make their way to England.
As with the first film, Wan’s focus on our main two characters is what helps drive the emotion within the narrative. The Warrens are once again well-drawn individuals, with both Farmiga and Wilson working their chemistry and convincing of the couple’s struggle to maintain their fight against evil. Admittedly, they’re almost too decent; there’s barely a wrinkle to be found in their morals and beliefs, even if Ed’s frustrations with skeptics dares to suggest he could encounter some kind of anger. Nevertheless, believing the love that Ed and Lorraine have for one another is imperative, and both the screenplay and performances deliver in this aspect. Now, if only a little bit more attention was placed on their daughter, Judy, who may not have much to do with the overall plot, but who is seen only a handful of times and is largely forgotten about throughout.
The Hodgsons, on the other hand, are a bit of a mixed bag. While young Wolfe is particularly strong as the daughter in evil’s sights and O’Connor puts in a highly emotive, convincing performance as a mother coming to terms with what is happening in her household, the three other children are all but wasted. Their lack of inclusion wouldn’t be so noticeable if the film didn’t tease potential developments in their characters, giving Judy’s sister a bit of screen time in the first half only to forget about her as the film moves along, and introducing young Billy Hodgson and his stutter, a point made a few times, but which ultimately doesn’t matter in the slightest.
There’s a bit of an inconsistency in who the screenplay decides to place its focus. Certain side characters are glossed over when they could have provided further developments, such as Franka Potente’s skeptical professor of psychology Anita Gregory, who hits the same beats, going from doubt to doubt, but never manages to be more than a slight distraction. Paranormal researcher Maurice Grosse, played well by Simon McBurney, is also underused, but does at least add up to something when he reveals a tidbit relating to his past. And I’m sure there was more planned for that dog.
The other screenplay qualm that stands out is in the film’s narrative flow, which hits an unfortunate stumbling block around the middle act. Wan and his co-writers, Carey Hayes, Chad Hayes and
David Johnson, clearly have a desire to deliver a horror film that hits more than scares, which is all well and good, but the decision to slow down and elongate an act that enhances characterisation proves to be detrimental. Put simply, seeing the Warrens, the Hodgsons and certain side characters interact while the primary horror plot remains in limbo becomes a bit of a chore. Save for a few moments of tension, the film hits a protracted period towards the centre of its arc that could do with more trims. The movie is surprisingly measured, and perhaps too much so.
Ultimately, The Conjuring 2 is a horror film, and as with the first outing, audiences are in for some well-structured scares. Wan certainly knows his way around a sequence, driving home extended scenes of tension with the gusto that comes with a filmmaker who’s passionate about the genre. He crafts moments incredibly well, holding the audience firmly in his grasp, directing eyes with almost mathematical framing, and timing the punchlines with impressive precision. Don Burgess’ stark cinematography furthers the uneasiness, while Joseph Bishara’s score nicely balances the jitters with moments of heart and even hope.
Alas, despite the effectiveness of the film’s undeniably creepy happenings, we’ve seen a lot of it before. The primary demon at the core of the story is unfortunately clichéd, visually speaking, and the film’s reliance on the trope of “scary old people” has been used much too often to provide more than a temporary visual jolt. Amid the craft are overly familiar elements and set ups, without some of the creative goodies that came in the first Conjuring. The first chapter’s hide & clap sequence, for example, was a true standout, but the scares here are much more straightforward, even if the film’s strange ‘Crooked Man’ addition is a little “different.”
When all is said and done, The Conjuring 2 is yet another strong picture for James Wan. The director’s enthusiasm for horror and filmmaking shines through, and it’s hard not to go along for the ride. A number of the genre’s tired tropes are still alive and kicking here, but apart from Wan’s direction, the decision to keep the relationships at the forefront also helps stave off predictability. It’s by no means perfect, but The Conjuring 2 is still a well-crafted, slickly produced and potent horror pic. If you’re looking for a creepy night at the movies, you’ve got one.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10