THE CONJURING 2
Directed by James Wan
Starring Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Madison Wolfe, Frances O’Connor, Simon McBurney
out of ****
Catholic Super-natural investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren (Farmiga & Wilson) return in the somewhat successful/somewhat derivative sequel to the 2013 smash hit THE CONJURING. Aping elements of horror classics such as THE OMEN, THE EXORCIST and even 2014’s Australian nightmare THE BABADOOK; only with the volume turned up to eleven.
Our story begins, following a brief prologue at a certain Long Island home – the Warrens are in the midst of getting over their experience dealing with the horrors of Amityville (and a haunted house there too wakka wakka). A demon first spotted there seems to have followed Lorraine, showing up in her premonitions and dreams, portending doom to her and Ed. One particularly haunting sequence finds Lorraine pursuing this demon in the halls of her home not unlike Danny Torrance on his tricycle wheeling through The Overlook Hotel. This brief cat and mouse game with the malevolent force demonstrates how effective a horror filmmaker James Wan can be (INSIDIOUS, THE CONJURING) when he settles down and allows audience imagination, to fill the quiet gaps with anxiety. The restraint in that scene is sadly absent from much of the subsequent action.
Meanwhile across the pond Peggy (O'Connor) a single mum and her four children are being terrorized rather noisily by a different spiritual entity. It seems that an old man named Bill, died in their house many years ago and his spirit has possessed Peggy's young daughter Janet (Wolfe). The old man would appreciate it if this family would kindly get out of his house (and presumably off his lawn shortly thereafter). A media circus begins to surround the family and their haunted abode, and It’s only a matter of time before the Warrens throw on their crucifixes and set off for Merry Old London to wage spiritual war once again.
Wan is not so subtlety paying homage to the great religious horror films of the 1970s, even down to the excellent title-card that appears at the start of the film; but I wish he would take a few more cues from the quiet ways those films went about building atmosphere - allowing their audiences to breathe for a god damn second. From about the 20 minute mark onward we are shown a scene of daytime exposition followed by a 5-10 minute nighttime sequence of ghost and demon related batshit insanity, rinse & repeat. Most of these horror set-pieces are or at least would be quite effective in a vacuum, but when lined up one after another for 2 hours it can start to become a drain. Contrast this with a film like THE EXORCIST, which Wan did a much more effective job mirroring in the vastly superior original CONJURING. Not a whole lot happens in the first 2/3rds of Friedkin’s masterpiece, until basically everything is happening - the calm quiet moments setup the nightmare-inducing scenes in the climax, making them all the more horrifying by contrast. On the other hand when you’re faced with relentless, pop-out scares every 5 minutes it starts yielding diminishing returns. You cannot build to crescendo when you start at crescendo.
Another issue is that there’s a lack of appreciation for the value of silence in CONJURING 2 as well as in contemporary horror films in general. Too often a character wanders around a damp or dark basement or room, while the bombastic score yells in your ear to make sure you're on edge. I wish Wan would trust his audience to know when they should be scared. This pervasive wall of sound had a noteworthy effect on me; as in one scene the Warrens are sitting at the breakfast table having an innocent conversation, when all of a sudden their daughter appears from out of the frame to join them. I leaped out of my chair because I had gotten so used to having the score and sound design tell me when absolutely anything surprising was going to enter my purview. My senses did not know how to handle something unexpectedly entering a scene without fanfare.
All this said - THE CONJURING 2 is at least partially successful, in fact as far as typical horror sequels goes it is substantially closer to a triumph than a failure. Many moments had me either jumping out of my seat or clenching the arm-rests for dear life. Our two leads have grown quite comfortable in these roles at this point and their chemistry is strong enough to make me say I would welcome another entry into the series. Wilson in particular has an easy-going 'aw shucks' charm that clashes quite successfully with the occasionally insane proceedings; calming those around him and us in the audience all the same. I would even welcome a return for Wan as moments of this film are arrestingly scary; I just hope he locates the volume button next time.