[Note: This post contains mild spoilers for The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2.]
The critical admiration bestowed upon director James Wan’s 2013 haunted house feature The Conjuring remains a puzzling phenomenon. The film is a shameless and utterly obnoxious helping of religious apologism, albeit one that is weirdly muddled in its advocacy for faith over skepticism. While one’s tolerance for such god-bothering hoopla might depend on one’s personal beliefs, The Conjuring’s gravest sin is more fundamental than its questionable worldview: It’s just not that scary. Nothing defeats a horror feature quite like a dearth of fright, and Wan’s film consistently confuses hackneyed spook story design and dismally predictable jump scares for authentic terror. What’s more, there is little connective tissue running through the feature’s myriad scenes of phantasmal shenanigans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its alleged inspiration in the case files of demonologists-slash-hucksters Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring unfolds less like a coherent story and more like a collection of fusty ghost-hunting anecdotes and stock urban legends.
The Insidious series has established Wan as a horror filmmaker who is capable of employing creaky genre tropes in gratifying and slightly off-kilter ways. Accordingly, one is disposed to lay some of the blame for The Conjuring’s narrative failures on twin screenwriters Carey and Chad Hayes (House of Wax, The Reaping) and producer Tony DeRosa-Grund, who shepherded the feature out of development hell in spite of zero experience with horror cinema. Regardless, the film’s missteps are partly rooted in its preference for the viewpoint of the ghost-sniffing Warrens rather than that of the Perrons, the terrorized family whose New England farmhouse has unfortunately become the lair of a vengeful witch’s spirit. As portrayed with unusual paltriness by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson, Lorraine and Ed Warren are world-weary but steadfast in their religious convictions. With only small perturbations, their responses to every fresh swerve of spectral viciousness amount to moist-eyed resolve and tighter crucifix-clutching. Given that the viewer is more naturally aligned with the Perrons and their bewildered terror, the stiff-lipped, theologically ambiguous Warrens make lousy audience surrogates.
Accordingly, it was not particularly heartening to learn that Farmiga, Wilson, Wan, and the Hayeses had re-teamed for another ghost story purportedly culled from the Warrens’ real-world experiences. That said, The Conjuring 2 takes an approach to the sequel form that is relatively novel in the present era of horror franchises defined by elaborate world-building and breathlessly convoluted mythologies. (Ironically, that era was ushered in by Wan’s own Saw series, and further solidified by Insidious.) The Conjuring 2—which, like is antecedent, includes no actual conjuring—is only a sequel in the sense that its events occur after those of first film, and that it is similarly inspired by one of the Warrens’ purported paranormal investigations. The new film has nothing to do with the Perron haunting, and in this respect the Conjuring films more closely resemble standalone stories with the same protagonists rather than interconnected chapters in a multi-film saga. There’s something appealingly tidy and straightforward about this attitude, which lends each film the digestible simplicity of a Hardy Boys novel or an episode of a classic television series.
Like its predecessor, The Conjuring 2 opens with a prelude that appears to have minimal connection to the film’s primary plot. It is 1976 and the Warrens are in the middle of their most renowned case, the notorious haunting that supposedly afflicted the Amityville, Long Island home of the Lutz family. (This was later revealed to be a massive hoax, of course, but that hasn’t prevented the tale from inspiring at least one or two effective horror features.) During a séance, Lorraine relives the mass murder of the house’s previous inhabitants through the appallingly detached perspective of the crime’s perpetrator. It’s a disturbing sequence in which she mentally stalks through the darkened halls, methodically pumping an unseen shotgun as she “murders” each slumbering family member in their bed. What truly rattles Lorraine, however, is not the firsthand experience of this gruesome deed, but an encounter with a terrifying white-faced demon in a nun’s habit. This entity shows her a disturbing vision of Ed’s death, snapping Lorraine out of her trance with a jolt. In contrast to the first film, the initial impression that this prelude is unrelated to the subsequent story is slowly and steadily eroded. Eventually it becomes alarmingly apparent that the same foul forces are at play both in Amityville and in Enfield, north London one year later.
The latter is the home borough of the Hodgson family, headed by frazzled single mom Peggy (Frances O’Connor). She is struggling to keep four kids—from oldest to youngest, Margaret (Lauren Esposito), Janet (Madison Wolfe), Johnny (Patrick McAuley), and Billy (Benjamin Haigh)—fed and clothed in a moldering council row house while Dad is shacked up with his new family down the street. True to the haunted house movie formula, the paranormal disturbances that trouble the Hodgson clan start out relatively small in scale, albeit with an unambiguous aura of menace: nocturnal thudding, disembodied voices, and objects moving or activating on their own accord. Janet begins talking and roaming about in her sleep, often waking in a daze in the downstairs parlor. Her mounting anxiety seems to be centered on a decrepit leather rocking chair, where Peggy finds her sitting on more than one occasion.
Consistent with its predecessor, The Conjuring 2 is cursed with a shapeless plot that consists largely of a seemingly arbitrary assortment of ghostly shocks delivered with no particular sense of rhythm or direction. At times, the entity that bedevils the Hodgsons is remarkably restrained, playing mind games with the children in a manner that suggests psychological sadism as its ultimate objective. In other instances, its tactics amount to little more than crude spectral bullying aimed at driving the family away, as when the spirit abruptly appears as a gaunt, crooked-toothed old man who bellows threats at Janet, only to vanish just as suddenly.
Janet in particular has attracted the malevolent attention of the ghost, which is eventually revealed to be the lingering spirit of the house’s erstwhile misanthropic resident, Bill (Bob Adrian). The revelation that Janet’s poor soul may be in peril clarifies the story’s stakes, but doesn’t do much to correct the aimless character of the narrative. Even when the plot appears to move forward, nothing much changes. The local constabulary looks into the disturbances and is perplexed by the strange sounds and moving furniture, but can’t actually do anything about them. The physically and emotionally battered family moves across the street to escape the tormenting wraith, but the ghost finds ways to terrorize them anyway. The British media picks up on the story and the Hodgsons become the subjects of a sensational national news circus, but the arrival of parapsychologists and skeptical scientists doesn’t abate or intensify the spectral activity in any meaningful way. One gets the distinct sense that Wan is just killing time until the Warrens enter the picture.
The filmmakers never quite resolve what sort of horror picture they are making—a haunted house story, a demon possession story, or some kludgy hybrid of the two—and too often flit indiscriminately between subtle and vulgar scares. That said, many of the film’s paranormal scenes are terrifically chilling when regarded on their own merits, and in this the sequel is a clear improvement over the inert and uninspired The Conjuring. The fantastic sound design, credited to Eliot Connors, Joe Dzuban, and Peter Staubli, is a significant contributor to the film’s success on this score: The jarring thuds, squeals, and shrieks that reverberate through the sequences of ghostly havoc are downright blood-curdling, and pitilessly bombastic in manner that never devolves into wearying sensory overload.
The soundscape underlines the at times violent tone of the film’s poltergeist activity, which leans PG-13 while still providing an aura of lethal ferocity as furniture and humans are tossed about with terrifying supernatural force. Just as effective, however, are the moments of sustained, agonizing quiet, often involving a character (and by extension the viewer) staring with trepidation into a sea of threatening shadow. While the film evinces an affection for garish visual effects in some scenes, Wan and cinematographer Don Burgess also know how to employ the simple raw materials of extreme low light and negative space in expert fashion. Many of the film’s most superlative shots teeter brilliantly on the boundary between digital-assisted illusion and a mundane trick of the eye, as the viewer strains to determine whether they do in fact detect a menacing shape lurking in the darkness. Indeed, with respect to its methods, The Conjuring 2 often recalls no less a horror classic than The Haunting, with its wallpaper shadow play and hellishly jarring sound design—a worthy influence if there ever was one.
At times, The Conjuring 2’s haphazard tendencies even manage to pay crazed dividends in the moment. A stock scenario involving a dog barking at something unseen in the backyard suddenly morphs into a jaw-dropping scene of Burton- and del Toro-flavored fantasy body horror when Billy’s personal bogeyman the Crooked Man (Javier Botet) lurches forth on spidery, stop-motion limbs. It makes almost no sense in the context of the rest of the film, but damn if it isn’t pants-shitting scary in a way that recalls a childhood nightmare. And then there is the demon nun (Bonnie Aarons), an entity that skulks around the periphery of the story, casually terrorizing Lorraine while the screenplay works up the nerve to pull the Warrens into the Hodgsons’ tribulations. When scrutinized in the full light of day, the creature resembles Marilyn Manson in a sophomorically blasphemous Halloween costume, but Wan mostly keeps the figure swathed in shadow, accentuating its menace. The demon only has two modes—statue-like impassivity and shrieking madness—and it veers between them with an aggressiveness that keeps Lorraine and the viewer off balance. It’s sort of hokey, but also dreadfully effective at creating a sense of lurking, unholy danger.
Once the Warrens do arrive at Enfield to investigate, the film becomes slightly more focused and compelling, notwithstanding the blandness of the ghost hunters themselves and the ongoing directionless quality of the undead disturbances. As in the first film, Lorraine and Ed’s sober marital love and religious piety serve as bulwarks for the embattled family. The scenes of paranormal sleuthing are interspersed with those highlighting the cozy, calming domesticity that the Warrens’ presence bestows on the household. This pattern provides a welcome break from the ghost’s pitiless assaults and the weak-tea family drama of the Hodgsons in isolation, but it’s more obligatory than heartfelt. Farmiga and Wilson’s engagement with this sort of rote, forced humanism is conspicuously thin, but the Warrens are so one-note and underwritten as characters, it’s perhaps unfair to lay the blame on the performers. Scenes of Ed selflessly taking on the surrogate father role—performing plumbing repairs and strumming out an Elvis tune on an acoustic guitar to the delight of the kids—are particularly eye-rolling in their formulaic silliness.
Fortunately, the Warrens’ appearance at the Hodgson home also sets the stage for several gratifying horror sequences that showcase Wan's impressive directorial skills. These include: a claustrophobic thriller scene in a flooded basement that employs blocking and lighting to cunning effect; a mostly off-screen frenzy of poltergeist violence that demolishes a kitchen and culminates in a grotesque, shocking discovery; and, most prominently, a nerve-wracking interrogation of a ghost-possessed Janet that utilizes shallow focus to ingeniously skirt a scientific implausibility. The highlight of the film, however, is indisputably a climactic reveal that provides Lorraine with the means to save Janet and drive the malevolent force out of the Hodgsons' house once and for all. On the one hand, it’s a vaguely cheap twist that the viewer has little prayer of puzzling out on their own. On the other, it’s a revelation that is rather brilliantly signaled throughout the film, in a manner that elegantly skirts the line between a subliminal message and an Argento-style clue whose significance is apparent only much later. It’s at once ridiculous and utterly satisfying, prompting the viewer to mentally return to prior shots with a gasp, and all without the need for an in-film flashback to crudely hammer the point home.
Even if one were to set aside its structural and pacing problems, the film still suffers from many of the genre’ reliably exasperating flaws. It wouldn’t be a modern horror feature without foolish character decisions, questionable fudging of time and space, and a senselessly drawn-out climax. Moment-for-moment, however, The Conjuring 2 is decisively more capable and fascinating than its forebear, if only because it actually succeeds in spots as a work of creepy entertainment.
It’s a pity, then, that the film is larded with the same faith-based hogwash that made its antecedent such an irksome slog. If anything, the film’s ethos is pitched even more severely towards a smug loathing of skeptics and academics, who are unfailingly presented as tweedy twerps and dismissive sourpusses. It’s challenging to make a work of dunderheaded theistic agitprop like The Exorcism of Emily Rose look fair-minded and nuanced in comparison, but The Conjuring 2 somehow manages it. Even the blatant pandering of an overtly fundamentalist Christian feature might be preferable to the self-satisfied greeting card aphorisms that dot the Hayeses’ screenplay. The result is not so much a religious film as a snotty, flimsy jeremiad against any rationalist critique of supernatural claims.
The Warrens are understood to be Catholic—“the Church” receives copious sidelong name-checks—but the film is only interested in utilizing that faith’s sacred trappings for cut-rate funhouse gimmicky, such as crucifixes that turn themselves upside-down. Actual immersion in and engagement with the Catholic worldview would necessitate a thoughtfulness that The Conjuring 2 is incapable of sustaining. This, ultimately, is what is so unpleasant and insulting about the film’s disdain for rationality: It cloaks itself in Christianity but has no use for the faith’s potential as a storytelling substrate. The contrast with a film like The Exorcist—a profoundly, almost painfully Catholic film—could not be starker. William Friedkin’s 1973 feature plunges so deeply and expressively into Catholicism’s spiritual traditions of guilt, frailty, and redemption that even atheistic viewers such as this writer are unfailingly overwhelmed by its potency. What The Conjuring 2 traffics in, on the other hand, is the pop cultural equivalent of ceremonial piety: a pose calculated to provide a gloss of complacent superiority, sans any theological substance.