PLOT: After a trip to the haunted Amityville house rattles them, paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren are contemplating retirement. But when called upon by the church to investigate a potential haunting in England, the Warrens have no choice but to get involved in their most dangerous case yet.
REVIEW: After burning off some steam in the FAST & FURIOUS world, James Wan returns to familiar territory with THE CONJURING 2, another involving foray into supernatural nightmare fuel. It must have been like going home again, because Wan doesn't leave anything out, every trademark's on full display: darkened hallways, half-seen entities hiding in shadowy corners, abrupt noises and a roving camera that always threatens to show us more than we want to see. We know Wan does scares well, but what he gets less credit for, perhaps unfairly, is the undeniable tenderness he directs toward his characters; the torment they go through, and the love they show one another, is as effective as the dozens of spooks and chills Wan throws our way. The people matter more than the frights.
But there are plenty of frights to be had in this sequel, which has so many protracted sequences of folks (often children) warily navigating gloomy corridors that it's hard to recall them individually after the fact. At approximately 134 minutes, it could even be said that THE CONJURING 2 goes a tad overboard; after about the ninth or tenth one of these scenes you're bound to become a little inured to all the jump scares and creeping phantoms. With a few exceptions, I'm a believer that horror movies - like comedies - shouldn't go beyond two hours, because they're more than likely to loose a little pop. However, that's a criticism you can basically live with when it comes to THE CONJURING 2, since when it's firing on all cylinders you'll be either pinned back to your seat or inching ever closer to the screen with your fingers over your eyes. Nowadays, no one conjures up a scare better than Mr. Wan.
Like its predecessor, THE CONJURING 2 opens with a creepy appetizer, in this case a visit to the infamous Amityville house in Long Island, New York. Not quite as enthralling as the introduction to Annabelle the haunted doll, this prologue still sets the appropriate mood for a movie intent to freak out the cowering little kid within you. The paranormal life is finally getting to Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren; they're called out as charlatans by skeptics who don't know better, and Lorraine in particular is being worn down by unnerving visions of a ghoulish demon. Hoping to bring an end to the psychic nightmares, Lorraine suggests they stop investigating cases. Ever the concerned husband, Ed agrees. (The moments between Wilson and Farmiga are genuinely touching throughout; Wan working his knack for sentimental sweetness.)
Running parallel to the plight of the Warrens is the case that will, of course, ruin their short-lived retirement. In Enfield, England, a single mother (Frances O'Connor) and her four children are living in poverty in the wake of being ditched by the family patriarch. Things are bad, but the shortage of food, the flooded basement, the cracked ceilings and rusting pipes will turn out to be no match for what befalls them next: the emergence of an indignant poltergeist that singles out young Janet (Madison Wolfe, who is quite excellent) for relentless psychological and physical abuse. As the haunting becomes public knowledge - even the local police can't deny strange things are afoot - the family searches for anyone who can run out the godawful scourge. Who ya gonna call?
Structurally and stylistically, THE CONJURING 2 is quite similar to the first one; Wan and his many co-writers have more or less stuck to a formula that worked like gangbusters the first time around. That means you can expect a slow burn of mysterious doings in the first act before the film earnestly forges into its quest to scare the ever-loving crap out of you, with faces popping out of the dark, loud noises that will punish your eardrums, flying furniture and everything else in Wan's bag of tricks. (I really love how he moves the camera in these films.) When the Warrens finally arrive to help their new clients (it actually takes a surprisingly long time for them to arrive in England), they become one with the family, protecting the children as if they were their own and battling their new foe with vigor. The third act is full-on insanity, with pyrotechnics and CGI taking over, the battle for a family's soul being waged with shouted incantations.
Wilson and Farmiga both return comfortably to roles they made so memorable in THE CONJURING, with the latter providing most of the film's heart and soul. It helps that Farmiga has one of the great faces in movies today, her almost otherworldly eyes sometimes the best visual effect on display. But it's Wolfe who really impresses here, with a performance of such focused intensity that it could be said to rival Linda Blair's turn as Regan MacNeil. (THE EXORCIST, by the way, is a clear influence on THE CONJURING 2, Wolfe's tormented, sometimes possessed child being just one of several nods to the classic.)
A minor observation, which might be considered a gripe: both CONJURING movies are at their best in the early going; the quieter scenes are far more disturbing than the ones where the kitchen sink has been thrown at the screen. THE CONJURING 2's finale is its weakest section, an overload of action, blaring sound and visual effects. I don't doubt that the conclusion will work for the audience (just as I won't deny that I was still invested in the movie), but it's just a bit too much. After two hours, there's only so much your senses can take.
Still, Wan and company have delivered a product that is overall very satisfying; you come for scares, you'll get scared. But more than that, you'll hopefully appreciate the effort Wan makes to involve you in the various characters; their torments, their brief glimmers of happiness, their failings and victories. Someone is still crafting horror movies that aim for the heart as well as the reflexes, and that's worth walking into the dark for.