Good sequels are hard to come by. This is doubly true in the horror genre, where sequels risk becoming serialised and formulaic -- but The Conjuring, released in 2013, was always a different kind of horror film. The sequel follows closely in its footsteps, making use of strong characters and relationships to drive its spooky story. While The Conjuring 2 doesn't fall victim to the horror genre's proven inclination towards clones, the sequel feels familiar in a way that fans of the original film will appreciate.
Warning: spoilers within!
The film starts out strong and, like its predecessor, begins with a case that is largely -- but not entirely -- unrelated to its main focus on the Enfield poltergeist. This time around, it's the Amityville Horror -- something fans have wanted to see studied by The Conjuring's Ed and Lorraine Warren ever since the first film was released.
While many want to see the Warren's investigation of Amityville as a full film, it's extremely well timed as the intro to this movie. Not only does it add to continuity between films (the first film ended with a reference to "a case in Long Island"), but the Amityville hysteria that swept the world was also a direct influence on the coverage of the later Enfield case -- with the latter being referred to as "England's Amityville".
After starting off with a bang and a few good scares, The Conjuring 2 settles in for the long haul -- and I really mean long. At around two hours and 15 minutes, The Conjuring 2 is a lengthy film -- probably longer than it needs to be, though that length is largely felt in gut-clenching tension rather than dragging boredom.
A few whole scenes could have easily been snipped with no real loss to the story. Most notably of these was a trite 'welcome to London' montage, complete with archival footage, red buses and The Clash's London Calling. The scene was obviously intended to introduce the new setting, but it instead ended up at odds with The Conjuring's distinctive yellow subtitling -- which quite clearly gives the location and date of the new scenes.
Once we get to England, however, the story finds its feet and starts to plod towards the inevitable, and it's in these early scenes that The Conjuring 2 really sets itself apart from a lot of horror films. The Conjuring has always distinguished itself as a movie that was about people as much as it was about the ghosts, and the sequel doesn't disappoint -- in fact it's one of the only films I've seen that successfully combines horror and romance.
The Warrens are once again skilfully played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, and their relationship is one of the things that really brings the film's story to life. They actually spend a good third of the movie back in the States, with Lorraine finding herself being stalked by an inhuman spirit that wants her husband's life.
Over in England, Frances O'Connor's Peggy Hodgson is the picture of a British working class single mother, one who isn't depicted as being particularly brave yet still charges into the unknown again and again for the sake of her beloved children. Unlike The Conjuring and its spinoff Annabelle, however, this one isn't about the mum.
The film focuses largely on her daughter Janet, the young girl whom the hauntings are centred around -- even when she leaves the Enfield flat. Madison Wolfe puts in a solid performance as Janet, chronicling her torment at the hands of a cranky old man spirit and the media -- but we'll get to that in a minute.
This isn't just a story about a ghost -- it's a story about a single mother with barely enough money to keep her four children fed and clothed, with a flooded basement and broken washing machine that's been left for lack of money to get it fixed -- or a man in the home to help fix it. It's a story about four children who get bullied in school, whose closest friends are among their own family.
On the more cliché side of things, it's a story that starts with an Ouija board.
As the ghostly presence moves in, the scares build slowly and the tension is created early on with nothing more than sound design and some creative camerawork -- which also serves to get the audience acquainted with the layout of the haunted house. Where some films would have already shoved a monster in your face, James Wan is still building atmosphere with nothing more than a Dutch tilt and a slow pan across a dark room.
The first half of The Conjuring 2 is a wonderful game of bait and switch -- the movie builds up expectations and tension, only to shatter them in the very next scene. A scare where you didn't expect one, or a long, silent moment where you did, Wan toys with his audience masterfully. As evidenced by its length, this film isn't afraid to take its time, and that is shown in a few particularly memorable scenes.
In one, the youngest son Billy gets up in the middle of the night for a glass of water, only to find his toy firetruck misplaced from its usual home inside his darkened play tent (as seen in one of the earliest trailers for The Conjuring 2). He puts it back inside and goes back to bed -- just as the firetruck wheels out of the tent of its own accord, lights and sirens blazing. During the long silent pauses of this scene, you can't help but anticipate the next burst of paranormal activity -- but Wan makes you wait just long enough that you second guess whether it's coming at all.
This scene with the tent is also one of a number of scenes that follows a tradition of haunted house films -- identifying the main points of ghostly activity in the house and building expectations around those places. The tent, an old chair, one of the upper rooms and, of course, the basement are all firmly established as being bad news before the Warrens even step into the picture.
Also before our intrepid paranormal investigators do arrive, the film addresses the media circus that surrounded the Enfield haunting, and introduces the numerous real-life figures involved. One scene even recreates an infamous interview with Janet and Margaret Hodgson, right down to the girls' postures as they sit on a dingy couch.
One of the most interesting things about The Conjuring 2 is the way it addresses the air of scepticism that surrounded both the Amityville and Enfield cases -- which are both now widely agreed to have been hoaxes. In fact, most of the information you'll find about Enfield online is more concerned with debunking the haunting than it is with actually chronicling what happened.
While most horror movies include skeptics in some way, none quite address it in the way that The Conjuring 2 has, with investigators and reporters often present to try and provide a more mundane reasoning for what is happening. Even clairvoyant investigator (and true believer) Lorraine Warren has her moments of doubt when she finds she can't sense any ghostly presence in the house.
This atmosphere leads to one of the interesting explorations of character in The Conjuring 2 -- that of Janet's isolation as the target of a large part of the paranormal activity. By the time the Warrens arrive in England, Janet is almost unresponsive, being haunted by both a vengeful spirit and the academics and reporters who are determined to prove her a liar.
It's while the Warrens are investigating that the movie starts to meander a little. This section is filled with great and inventive scares, but even the new ways in which the haunted Janet is tormented by the spirit of old man Bill start to feel repetitive when the result is always the same.
While tension is often built in new and interesting ways, James Wan has a tendency to return to one particular type of scare -- the creepy face popping out of the shadows, something you may have also seen in Insidious, or to a lesser extent in The Conjuring. This film features no less than three different creepy faces, which all pop out at you multiple times at opportune moments. While it can feel repetitive, the effect is undeniable.
Wan is a known fan of practical effects, and the makeup design for each of the scary entities is spot on -- utilising the uncanny valley effect by taking a human face and making it inhuman enough to be unsettling. The faces from The Conjuring 2 are one of the first things to have kept me up at night for some time.
After the scare-filled nights of The Conjuring 2 pass, the days are depicted as surprisingly pleasant -- but those familiar with The Conjuring will recognise this as the calm before the storm. As much as they're there to investigate a haunting, the Warrens also take it upon themselves to provide some much needed stability. Ed takes on the role of handyman, giving the plumbing and appliances some TLC that's been much needed since Peggy's husband left them. Lorraine is as patient and gentle as always, calming both a frazzled Peggy and her children.
Of course, the fun and laughter of the idyllic family scenes created by Ed and Lorraine's presence (including an extended singalong to Elvis's "Can't Help Falling In Love") can only mean one thing -- the shit's about to hit the fan.
From here The Conjuring 2 barrels through into its last act with gusto. The eventual denouement almost seems rushed, which is odd in a movie that stretches to a bloated two and a quarter hours, but the film gets its satisfying conclusion in the end.
Some of the morals pushed towards the end of the film are considerably heavy-handed, and a moment between Janet and the Warrens is almost too mushy even considering the overall humanity of The Conjuring 2, but at its core it is a film that manages to be more than just a two-hour-long frightfest.
The Conjuring 2 is a film that's worthy of its predecessor, endeavouring to be even scarier than the original, while still retaining that focus on the characters that drive it. While it could do with being a little shorter, it's a horror film that will restore some of your faith in humanity -- and still keep you up at night.