Does director James Wan believe in ghosts? Or does he simply believe in the power of horror cinema to suggest the possibility so earnestly and intently that it might as well be the same thing? Either way, The Conjuring 2 is the work of a believer. It’s a ghost story focused on the people involved, characters who need to believe in order to make sense of their lives. The haunted need proof they’re not hallucinating frauds, an explanation, no matter how otherworldly, for their traumatic experiences. Those who arrive to assist them in this terrifying time carry the baggage of prior encounters and the burden of their unique skills. They simply can’t ignore cries for help only they can answer. Like its predecessor, this horror sequel finds the humanity in the mechanical workings of the haunted house genre, summoning real scares where others turn up only stale fright. This movie contains sequences of such masterful manipulation, drawn-out scenes of goosebumps-laden patience and shiver-inducing jolts, that it’s hard to ignore its power.
Once again the film splits its focus between a family in supernatural crisis and its heroes, Lorraine and Ed Warren, a pair of paranormal investigators who claim to have been witnesses to all sorts of ghostly goings-on. As with last time, the inspiration comes from the real Warrens’ case files, which gives reason enough for a “based on a true story” title card, and groovy 70’s fashions, an added bonus for the retro throwback appeal of these films, in stylistic and thematic continuity with some of the biggest horror of the time. Like The Exorcist or The Omen (or The Amityville Horror, also based on a case the real Warrens’ were involved with, and explicitly referenced in this film’s chilling prologue), The Conjuring movies are handsomely polished works that hire great dramatic actors and allow them to chew on horror tropes, lending unusual emotional weight and seriousness to the downtime between jump scares.
The Warrens (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) are professionals doing their job. The spiritual haunts them. Their marriage is built on their trust in one another, and their shared faith in what they’ve been through. Their comfortable, lived-in, low-key romance unfolds in the margins of scenes, lending the unsettled mood background tenderness. In The Conjuring 2, they’re feeling the pressure of increased visibility. They’ve been experts called in to explain, exorcise or experiment with the validity of all sorts of hauntings, an urgent need in the world as this series understands it, albeit one greeted with healthy doses of skepticism from the scientific community. They’re worn out, ready to take a break, when they hear about a poor, frightened family living in what appears to be a haunted house in North London. The screenplay – by Wan with David Leslie Johnson (Orphan) and Carey and Chad Hayes (of the original) – has been cutting back and forth, filling us in on the details of an 11-year-old girl (Madison Wolfe) who is sleepwalking, seemingly communicating with things that go bump in the night. Her mother (Frances O’Connor) doesn’t know where to turn, especially once objects start flying about.
The film is at its best in these early sequences of the family, a single mother and her four terrified children, increasingly tormented, discovering the extent of their ghostly domicile. They’re not as individuated as the family in the last one, but Wan has a toolbox full of effective horror movie tricks and proceeds to pull them out one by one, building tension out of sturdy, familiar components. He uses sudden noises, menacing voices, surprise movements, disorienting shifts in perspective, eerie apparitions, and long, trembling looks into dark corners. The children’s bedroom has posters on the wall, the better for pale faces to trick your eyes in the dead of night. There are windup cars and other vintage toys that move on their own accord, a TV mysteriously turning on or off. One of the film’s best effects involve the main girl’s sleepwalking, the camera in one seamlessly faked take slowly pushing in on her face as she sleeps in bed and a low rumbling sound fills the ambient noise, then pulling back revealing her on the floor of a different room.
Drifting and sliding, sometimes through floors and walls, Don Burgess’s pale, wide cinematography deploys sinister SteadiCam, glides and floats above and behind its characters, trapping them in the ethereal creepiness. By the time – Christmastime, in fact, a warm contrast to the film’s shivers – the Warrens meet up with a British counterpart (Simon McBurney) to investigate and document, they bring some stability, but the atmosphere remains unsettled. The spirit realm and the human world do battle. A particularly scary unbroken shot involves Ed Warren speaking to the malevolent spirit with his back turned. He sits in the foreground in complete clear focus, while behind him there’s a terrifyingly blurry figure held out of focus as it creaks and croaks out its ghostly answers. Wan holds tight on Wilson’s face, a calm professional steadily confronting the shifting target that is the intruder from the afterlife. It’s a perfect example of humanity in the face of the unknown.
Following the same formula that made its predecessor such a satisfying genre exercise, The Conjuring 2 slowly sets up a family’s distress and then follows the Warrens as they try desperately to fix the situation before someone can get seriously injured. This makes it the rare horror series that doesn’t make its villain the star – the stock in trade for Universal and Hammer monsters, Godzilla and assorted kaiju creatures, and every slasher. The Warrens make this into something of a paranormal procedural. The fun is in the repetition of images and ideas, and the slight variations. (This one’s British setting allows for fun touches, like a newspaper headline that reads, and hear this with the proper accent in your mind’s ear, “Terror for family in spook riddle!”) By the end, everyone has gotten up close and personal with ghostly suffering, in sequences that jolt and jump in all the right spots. It doesn’t reinvent the haunted house genre, or even its precursor’s techniques, but instead relies on the sturdiness of its construction. It adds up to a little less than the first, with a finale that's more routine than its setup, but there's a contagious and enveloping scary mood throughout nonetheless.