Mid-Budget Horror Makes Triumphant Return In "The Conjuring 2"

Director James Wan was just months removed from the gigantic success of “The Conjuring” when he extricated his deep horror roots to embark on Universal tentpole “Furious 7.” Then, real-life horror. Leading man Paul Walker perished offset in a fiery car crash, leaving Wan with an unthinkable charge: finish the movie. No matter the end result (Wan undeniably acquitted himself well), it’s hard not to view “The Conjuring 2” as a safe haven for the Australian filmmaker: a place of comfort and familiarity and an opportunity to apply the harsh lessons of blockbuster moviemaking to something close to his heart.

It’s a ball he bashes across the county line.

“The Conjuring 2” is one of the premier horror sequels of all time, not just improving on its predecessor but retroactively improving it. Once again based on the case files of true-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, the sequel lends a depth to its leads that wasn’t there before, expanding their world in both size and emotion. The end result isn’t just a great scary movie (it doesn’t hurt that it comes with twice the budget of the already plush original), but it’s a great movie, full of marvelous tension and scares and unforgettable imagery. And it gets better as it goes along, earning every minute of its seemingly ridiculous 130-minute running time. By the time Wan fades to black, you might wish there had been another half hour.

The film opens in 1975 on Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) investigating the world-famous Amityville murder house. The deeply troubling case is bleeding into their home life, giving Lorraine disturbing premonitions of Ed’s death. Meanwhile, across the pond, an English family of five is being terrorized by a particularly aggressive poltergeist. Single mom Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and two of her daughters, Janet (Madison Wolfe) and Margaret (Lauren Esposito), can’t shake the spirit of a hostile old man, ever under his terrifying gaze. When Peggy unwittingly turns the haunting into a media frenzy, the Warrens are pulled in like a tractor beam.

Wilson and Farmiga were good in the original, but here they’re absolutely crucial. Wilson brings a grounded, calming sensibility to Ed Warren that’s essential to keeping the movie from becoming unbearably bleak. When the character warmly breaks into an Elvis song to calm everyone’s nerves, there isn’t a hint of the actor inhabiting him or Wilson’s Broadway roots. It’s just Ed Warren soothing characters and moviegoers both, assuring all that everything will be okay, even when it seems like anything but.

Farmiga is even better. The actress, who’s always been good but is just now emerging as a powerhouse thanks to her leading role on A&E’s “Bates Motel,” moves emotional mountains as Lorraine. Her combination of empathy and fearlessness – all wrapped up in chewy character bits – makes this a performance to remember. Fiercely competent forty-something protagonists are rare in movies. Farmiga knows this, making a deeply compelling argument as to why that’s a shame.

The rest of the cast is excellent, too. Frances O’Connor is utterly believable as a mother doing all she can to sell her character’s circumstances (read: why she can’t simply move her destitute family). Young American actress Madison Wolfe turns in the finest child performance in a horror film since Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.” And supporting performances from Simon McBurney and Franka Potente add a pedigree that most genre films would kill for.

But it all comes back to James Wan. He’s one of the few working horror directors who understands the sensuality of the genre, involving as many of our senses as possible. In addition to brilliantly using his camera as a weapon against us (what we can’t see is every bit as important as what we can see), he continues to understand the importance of specific song choices to evoke a particular time and place and mood. This is not a particularly original story he’s telling, but in engaging both our eyes and ears, he makes it seem undeniably fresh.

Audiences only looking for scares will find them here en masse. Like many horror classics, there’s very little blood but miles of suspense, certainly enough to fatigue newbies. Nerve-fraying evil lurks around every corner, some of the jump scares essentially reinventing the technique. A practical effect based on an English nursery rhyme has the potential to irreparably scar younger viewers. (In what felt like a marketing ploy, the original film earned an R rating purely for scariness. Here it feels entirely earned.)

Superfans of 2013’s “The Conjuring” might not feel the steps forward Wan has taken here. This is a very different film, the rare elegant mid-budget horror film that looks nothing like the genre has in many years. But those who find themselves on the movie’s wavelength are liable to fall in love. It’s often a rich, riveting rollercoaster ride that can absolutely stand amongst the best films of the year. With but a few exceptions (Adam Wingard’s “The Guest” among them), it’s been a long time since that could be said of any movie in the genre. Wan makes it look easy.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: June 10, 2016
Studio: New Line Cinema (Warner Bros.)
Director: James Wan
Screenwriter: Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes, David Leslie Johnson, James Wan
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Lauren Esposito, Patrick McAuley, Benjamin Haigh, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Simon Delaney, Franka Potente, Simon McBurney
MPAA Rating: R (for terror and horror violence)