It's 1977 and 11-year-old Janet Hodgson has been hearing voices. She's the second-eldest of four kids, all living with their recently single mom Peggy in a low-rent, government-funded flat in north London. When the voices escalate into waking nightmares, physical attacks on Janet, and bone-chilling visitations from an elderly ghost, there's only one husband-and-wife team of demon-busters the Hodgson family can call: Ed and Lorraine Warren, back for The Conjuring 2.
When director James Wan chose to base the heroes of his 2013 horror blockbuster The Conjuring on real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, he took an obvious, unprecedented risk: that casting aside the horror film tradition of emphasizing European religious rites and mythos in favor of leaving the ghostbusting to an American couple of DIY exorcists from Connecticut would pay off.
And pay off it did: The fictional "characters" of the Warrens, as played with utter sincerity by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, were the most crowd-winning ghost hunters since their media-friendly real-life counterparts — even though the real Warrens were notorious for allegedly fabricating most of their paranormal adventures. Wan was so enamored of them that he reportedly turned down a "life-altering" sum of money to direct the eighth Fast and Furious film in order to work on the sequel to The Conjuring instead.
The Conjuring 2 is finally in theaters, and it somehow manages to be scarier, more thoughtful, and more intellectually honest than its predecessor.
The Conjuring 2 is a risky take on a real-life paranormal hoax
In the sequel to his box office smash, Wan has taken another great risk: telling the Warrens' version of the Enfield Poltergeist story, a tale so well-known in popular culture as a proven hoax that not even the real-life Warrens' insistence that it was true can overcome the public's general skepticism. So instead of trying to work around the real-life elements of the Enfield story, including the proof of the hoax, Wan has embraced them, bringing both the historical skepticism that followed the Warrens and the natural skepticism of every horror audience into his film.
The result is a paradox: The Conjuring 2 is as scary as it is noncommittal. Unlike the first film, the sequel sheds doubt again and again on both the legitimacy of the events happening onscreen — at some points explicitly addressing the historical proof of the hoax — and the Warrens own beliefs. Paranormal enthusiasts, skeptics, and agnostics all have an equal shot at feeling validated by the film's take on historical reality, while also ultimately agreeing with Wan's cinematic philosophy that terror is terror, regardless of the source.
The Conjuring 2 brings us not only the return of two main characters who already feel much-loved — a rarity for non-villains in horror films — but a hint at Wan's knack for creating films that are quite simply better than they have any right to be. It's baffling that a movie that is simultaneously a highly anticipated horror film sequel, a psychological deconstruction of its predecessor, a heartwarming family Christmas drama, a romance, an action-adventure, and an inexplicable musical showcase for Wilson's best Elvis impersonation can hold itself together at all, but somehow The Conjuring 2 manages to do that and much more. It keeps its grip on viewers while rarely forcing its scares on them.
Structurally, The Conjuring 2 hews closely to the blueprint of the original: The first act is devoted to the escalation of paranormal incidents within the Hodgson household, with a particular focus on Janet (a wide-eyed Madison Wolfe) and her younger brother, Billy. Meanwhile, in Connecticut, Lorraine Warren has convinced her husband to take a break from paranormal investigation after one of her paranormal visions reveals a terrifying demonic entity bearing a grim omen of her husband’s brutal death. When the same entity turns up in Ed's dreams, Lorraine is nervous, but once the Enfield family asks for help, the couple agrees to step in despite their misgivings that the whole affair might be a hoax perpetrated by one or more of the family members.
From there, the film alternates its escalating horror with the Warrens' demonstrably non-scientific attempts to determine whether Janet is telling the truth. These are punctuated by heartwarming moments of bonding between Janet, Lorraine, and Ed, and Lorraine's growing dread about whether she can save Ed from the fate she believes awaits him at the Enfield house.
The Conjuring 2, like its predecessor, succeeds or fails on the ability of the audience to accept Ed and Lorraine Warren. The stakes are even higher than those of the first film, not only because the real-life Enfield is such a well-known case among paranormal enthusiasts, but because the film takes us deeper into the couple's joint psyche. Where The Conjuring depicted an Ed and Lorraine who deeply loved and accepted one another no matter what, the sequel makes it clear that their mutual acceptance is a part of the marriage pact: Ed and Lorraine are the only ones who really understand Ed and Lorraine. It's very possible to read the entire film as a journey into the real Warrens' particular folie a deux — a shared madness that makes them no less endearing for all their kookiness.
Wan’s brilliance in The Conjuring 2 is to objectively portray the inside of an unrelenting nightmare
But if the film allows for the possibility that everything happening on screen is in the minds of the people experiencing it, we still have to experience it with them. The main strength of The Conjuring 2 is that it doesn't pull its punches. When the entity comes, there's no backing off; it's really coming for you.
The events inside the Enfield house may be real or entirely psychological, but they're frightening either way. And Wan clearly doesn't believe in resorting to a fake-out or a cheap trick when he can just fling lots of raw, intensely evil things at the audience over and over. In The Conjuring 2, he opts for fewer jump scares in favor of greater ongoing malevolence, to palpable effect: A middle-act sequence in which Lorraine confronts the horrific demonic nun who's been appearing in her visions had so many people in my theater screaming that I felt like I was on a roller coaster.
The film itself, however, is surprisingly steady given the number of incredibly scary, sometimes-dizzying scenes involving what could be lucid dreaming, sleep paralysis, or something seriously paranormal. Wan’s camera is absolutely objective, even as it remains tied to different characters’ points of view. Somehow The Conjuring 2 retains the feeling of being trapped in a horrific ongoing nightmare while still allowing us to stand outside of each scene and question everything we know — if we want to, that is.
Alas, the final third of the film lags considerably in comparison to all the dread that leads up to it, thanks to an emphasis on the Warrens' marital bonding, Ed’s Elvis singalong, the inevitable calm before the storm of the finale, and the subsequent mad rush to a last "get off my (spiritual) plane!" moment. As the story approaches its conclusion, many scenes feel less like horror fodder and more like the makings of a madcap Spielbergian adventure, with the Warrens standing in for the Goonies. But even then, the earnest believability of Wilson and Farmiga as the Warrens shifts The Conjuring 2 from farcical to poignant.
They’re aided in this endeavor by the film’s late-'70s setting. As in the first film, Wan enfolds the era, letting everything from lingering shots of an empty swingset to the decaying mundanity of the Hodgsons' subsidized housing district lure you into your unease. Wan also embraces the horror movie tradition of homage: nods to the new-age fantasy of Insidious, Asian horror tropes, and, of course, The Conjuring's forbearers Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, and The Exorcist are on full display. The film even begins with a view from inside the famed Amityville house, with its iconic malevolent attic windows.
In a way, the inversion of the original Amityville's opening tells us everything we need to know about The Conjuring 2: It's not just a horror film, but a look at what horror films feel like from within — from the perspectives of a few true believers whose worldviews are so shaped by their faith in the paranormal that sometimes they can drag other people into the madness with them.
In the real world, Ed and Lorraine Warren may have done actual harm in purveying their belief in demon possession by dragging other believers into their quest to battle evil spiritual forces (and allegedly through the money and publicity that accompanied the chase). In the fictional world of The Conjuring 2, at least getting taken for the ride is worth it.