Two notorious real-world paranormal incidents from the 1970s get new treatment in “The Conjuring 2,” director James Wan’s sequel to his 2013 horror hit. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson return as Lorraine and Ed Warren, paranormal investigators who employ her supernatural visions in their work as church liaisons looking into extreme examples of haunting and possession. The couple’s expertise leads them to the U.K., where a family is terrorized by the spirit of a dead man — here, Wan takes the opportunity to explore the shadowy corners of a distressed home and the fringes of the family’s sanity.
Having broken out as the director of “Saw,” Wan long ago made his bones in horror, but has since resisted being shackled to the “torture porn” subgenre he helped invent, directing films such as the hard-edged revenge thriller “Death Sentence.” “The Conjuring” saw the filmmaker turning to ‘70s and ’80s-influenced scares after a three year directing hiatus. His “Furious 7” directing gig led the filmmaker to say in 2013 that he was done with horror forever, but this sequel shows he couldn’t truly walk away. “The Conjuring 2” benefits from Wan’s ability to call up satanic suspense, but the script, credited to Wan, Carey Hayes, Chad Hayes and David Leslie Johnson, undermines the scares with a wispy and unfocused story.
The “Enfield Haunting of 1977,” in which English single mother Peggy Hodgson and her four children described unexplained knocking on walls and furniture moving on its own in their home, serves as a source for the story. They went on to claim that the house was the site of levitation and demonic possession.
“The Conjuring 2” reaches its apex when Wan and cinematographer Don Burgess (“Spider-Man,” “Forrest Gump”) patiently manipulate elements of the Enfield Haunting incident into wide-screen terror. Rather than building haunting scenes from claustrophobia-inducing images, the cinematography stays wide so we can see entire rooms. The camera hovers like an apparition, passing through windows and floating high above the action, lingering not so much on details as on the overall atmosphere of the house.
So Wan gives us the feeling of being direct voyeurs, as Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe, a standout young talent) is tormented by the spirit of a long-dead old man. The director knows when to let a moment play quiet and dark and when to add a bit of flash. As the Hodgson house is steadily torn apart by the poltergeist, most of the effects are fairly low-key, keeping the focus squarely on what may be lurking in shadows just out of reach.
Unlike the “Sinister” films, this movie doesn’t attempt to create a new iconic horror character. Most of the monstrous images in the film are fairly basic on their surface, as when Janet is possessed in classic “Exorcist” style. Wan exploits the appearance of a demonic nun to great effect in a sequence set in Ed Warren’s office, in which Burgess’s embrace of physical space pays off particularly well. The one largely CG character is the least successful of the film’s conceits, looking more out of place and artificial than any close-up “boo!” faces from various ghosts.
But after an hour, one begins to realize the scares are not only the best thing going in “The Conjuring 2” —they’re they only thing going. The film coasts on fright, dawdling as it brings the Warrens over to the U.K. to investigate the haunting of the Hodgson home. When all the pieces are finally in place, the story still struggles to take shape. There’s a focus problem: is this film about the Warrens, or does it concern victim Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Conner) and her kids?
The large cast looks like an ensemble, but isn’t treated as such; many characters end up shunted off to the side, as in the original “The Conjuring.” In both films, there’s the sense that Wan and co. are attempting to hew close to the historical record by populating the films with the same array of people who were present in the real hauntings. That’s a perfectly good conceit, but half the characters in this story, from the neighbors to investigative hangers-on, end up as clutter.
The story is about trust and reliance, with Lorraine Warren concerned about the effects her visions are having on her soul and her faith, but those concerns are mostly unexplained and unexplored. Horror is often best when it avoids being too specific —the audience can then imagine its own fears— but these concepts aren’t part of any mystery and are simply abandoned. If we’re meant to be alarmed as Lorraine’s visions prophesy doom for her and Ed, it doesn’t work. The film gets so locked into a routine of impressive but repetitive haunting sequences that we have time to realize they might not matter.
It doesn’t help that big points are hammered home with a total absence of subtlety. The cross-atlantic move to the U.K. is announced with “London Calling” by The Clash, a woefully on-the-nose song. As the climax approaches, basic story points are loudly repeated to make sure the dim bulbs in the audience are following along, and Farmiga’s considerable talents are strained by leaden dialogue
Still, points to “The Conjuring 2” for approaching its fright-craft with care and grace. In just a few minutes of prologue, the film creates a compelling take on the Amityville Horror story, as the Warrens investigate the familiar house and the murders that once occurred within. It creates effective chills out of such basic images as a lonely swing set at night, an old leather chair, and the image of a young girl, her face twisted in the throes of demonic possession.
But scares aren’t everything, even in horror, and “The Conjuring 2” is a freaky but often witless production that fails to stitch super-creepy scenes together into any compelling story. As it fritters away character work and ideas about faith and devotion, this is a film clever enough to scare us but not smart enough to accomplish anything more. [C+]