The Conjuring 2
How fortuitous is it that, when screenwriters finally decided to bring the story of Ed and Lorraine Warren to the big-screen, it landed in the hands of James Wan. It’s unlikely that anyone would have been saying that after “Saw” and “Death Sentence,” but when “Insidious” hit theatres in 2011, it felt like you were watching a different filmmaker. Someone more mature, more layered as a storyteller, and more imaginative as a director. After moving into blockbuster territory after the first “Conjuring” was a huge hit with “Furious 7,” he decided to return to the Warren’s life in dealing with the paranormal in “Conjuring 2.” Thankfully, his gifts as a horror director remain untouched, and he delivers a sequel every bit as unnerving and powerful as the original, which is almost unheard of in the genre.
Ed and Lorraine Warren are real people, a married couple whose faith and gifts have led them to investigate paranormal occurrences both in the United States and England. It’s in the UK where the story of “Conjuring 2” takes place, where a single mother, Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor), and her four children live in a somewhat dilapidated townhouse in 1977. One day, Peggy’s daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe) brings a homemade Ouija board into the house, and she and her sister Margaret (Lauren Esposito) play with it that night. Nothing happens then, and Janet puts it underneath her bed. It’s not long after that when strange things begin happening, not unlike what happened to the family the Warrens helped in the first film. One of the great touches of the way Chad and Carey Hayes lay out the stories in this series (this time with Wan and David Leslie Johnson helping on the script) is that they give us plenty of time with the affected family before the Warrens even enter the picture so that the emotional stakes are at their peak by the time Ed and Lorraine (once again played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) come into the picture. Of course, we follow Ed and Lorraine, as well, and Lorraine is having a crisis of faith. She is uncertain about wanting to continue the work she and Ed have been doing in helping others, as her extrasensory gifts that allow her to experience the paranormal are overloaded, and after Ed wakes to create a painting of a spirit he has been seeing in his dreams- a demonic nun- her belief in what they are doing is at the breaking point. When they are asked to observe what is going on with the Hodgsons, however, and see whether it is genuine, they find themselves pulled back into the fray with dangerous possibilities at work.
The Warrens are perfect for a horror franchise, because we don’t need a connect-the-dots narrative from one film to another like most sequels do. This is an entry in an anthology, and that makes the franchise much more accessible and believable as an audience member. The spin-off film, “Annabelle,” was a natural second step in the franchise, but the Warrens were barely involved in that film’s story, so it was hard to resonate with it’s seemingly by-the-numbers filmmaking. Since we come to sympathize with the Hodgsons as much as we do the Warrens in this film, “The Conjuring 2”- which continues Wan’s mastery of the genre in his sense of atmosphere and sound as a way of scaring audiences (his production team does great work all around)- keeps pace with the original in a way many sequels are unable to do in the genre. Yes, we know the tricks of the trade, but the way they are employed by Wan is what counts, and he’s as effective as Hitchcock was at maximizing tension out of even the simplest moments, such as a boy looking back at an indoor tent he’s set up. Or a young girl tying herself to the bed, in hopes she will stay there through the night. Like its predecessor, it follows in the tradition of “The Exorcist,” “Psycho,” “The Shining” and other pillars of the genre in bringing depth and a sense of reality to unspeakable terror. Hopefully, we get more in the years to come from the Warrens case files, and hopefully, Wan will continue to bring the purpose to these stories they deserve.