They’re ba-aack. Three years after The Conjuring rattled the multiplex with old-school horror, director James Wan ups the ante with an excellent sequel. His focus again is a documented case from the files of the Warrens of Connecticut, the shockingly white-bread demon fighters whose involvement with the so-called Amityville Horror put them on the pop-culture map — and also made them objects of derision. Wan’s expert deployment of genre jolts is no less in evidence this time around, but as he takes his time — perhaps even a bit too much of it — interweaving the Warrens’ story with that of the Hodgsons, in the London borough of Enfield, he crafts a deep dive into dread. The film builds to a symphonic climax of heaven-and-hell emotion.
The returning Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson imbue the roles of Lorraine and Ed Warren with the kind of lived-in nuance that illuminates their recent brilliant work on cable series — Bates Motel and Fargo, respectively, shows that traffic in their own brands of horror. Along with an excellent Madison Wolfe, as the 11-year-old girl who’s tormented by a restless spirit, or perhaps something worse, they lead an ace cast in a terrifically atmospheric plunge into ’70s-vibe melancholy. There’ll be nothing shocking about the feature’s muscle at the box office.
Prepare to be not just shaken but stirred.
Where the first film found the Warrens in the relative anonymity of their pre-Amityville days, The Conjuring 2 is set a decade later, when the clairvoyant Lorraine has insisted they take a break from case work. It’s not merely an attempt to lay low amid a mounting tide of talk-show scorn; she’s shaken to the core by a vision she had during their Amityville investigation — brought to chilling life in the séance sequence that opens the movie. But when the Catholic Church requests their assessment of a troublingly intractable situation in England, they pack their Bible and go.
The screenplay, credited to Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes, James Wan and David Leslie Johnson, structures its based-on-true-events drama as a tale of two households in distress, bringing them together after a somewhat distended hour. For single mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four children, life has turned into a constant state of emergency, especially for Janet (Wolfe), who’s sleepless from being tossed-about, levitated and frequently possessed by an angry entity who claims he wants his home back.
That home, a council house with crumbling paint and moldering corners, stands as a gloomy embodiment of domestic despair and economic uncertainty; the children’s father has abandoned the family, and the Thatcher era has dawned. But even as the eerily unfinished basement fills with water, the upstairs bedroom of Janet and her older sister, Margaret (Lauren Esposito), its walls bedecked with David Soul posters, is alive with tween dreams — until it becomes the locus of the family’s nightmare.
The house is an extraordinary creation by production designer Julie Berghoff, one of several key creative collaborators who have worked with Wan on both movies; the others are costume designer Kristin M. Burke, editor Kirk Morri and composer Joseph Bishara, and their contributions are essential to the film’s dark power.
With their clear, direct language and compassion, the Warrens arrive as a source of hope and stability for the Hodgsons, including the two youngest (Benjamin Haigh, Patrick McAuley), and their sympathetic neighbors (Maria Doyle Kennedy and Simon Delaney). Open-minded but unconvinced of the nature of the household’s troubles, Lorraine and Ed can’t dissuade parapsychologist Anita Gregory (Franka Potente) from her aggressive naysaying. (Charges of “children’s pranks” still dog the events in Enfield, which also were the subject of a 2015 British TV series.)
The Warrens’ straightforward earnestness fuels the film, more so than their Catholicism. Amid the chills and thrills, the childhood anxieties and vulnerability, Wan has made a celebration of the demonologist duo’s marriage. (As she was on the first film, Lorraine Warren, 89, is credited as a consultant here, as are three of the Hodgson children.)
In this Conjuring, the haunted-house tropes play second fiddle to something less graspable, even though there’s no question that a game of fright is in full, masterful swing. Cinematographer Don Burgess’ camera prowls and swoops, Bishara’s choral score sends shivers up the spine and Wan uses prolonged silence as well as sounds — creaking floorboards, a screeching backyard swing — to maximum unsettling effect. The director knows how to turn objects, from an antique zoetrope to a ringing telephone, into icons of free-floating evil or, in the case of a crucifix, into tools of redemption.
Yet incidents of Janet’s possession, however well realized, grow repetitive. At the same time, Potente’s character is curiously sidelined for much of the action, when a more thorough integration of her skepticism into the story would only have enriched it.
Another investigator, on the other hand, enhances the pic in unpredictable ways. Played with compelling ambiguity by Simon McBurney, amateur researcher Maurice Grosse begins as something of a well-meaning nuisance, if also a much-needed supporter. The moment when he reveals, in a few guileless words, what drew him to the paranormal, the movie’s stake in matters of love and heartbreak, longing and mourning, is brought into sharp relief.
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Production: A New Line Cinema presentation in association with Ratpac-Dune Entertainment of a Safran Company/Atomic Monster production
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Madison Wolfe, Frances O’Connor, Lauren Esposito, Benjamin Haigh, Patrick Mcauley, Simon McBurney, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Simon Delaney, Franka Potente
Director: James Wan
Screenwriters: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes, James Wan, David Leslie Johnson
Story by: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes, James Wan; based on characters created by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes
Producers: Peter Safran, Rob Cowan, James Wan
Executive producers: Toby Emmerich, Richard Brener, Walter Hamada, Dave Neustadter, Steven Mnuchin
Director of photography: Don Burgess
Production designer: Julie Berghoff
Costume designer: Kristin M. Burke
Editor: Kirk Morri
Composer: Joseph Bishara
Visual effects supervisor: Ariel Velasco Shaw
Casting: Anne Mccarthy, Kellie Roy, Rose Wicksteed
Rated R, 134 minutes