The original Conjuring was set in 1971, years before the Amityville Horror, which is known as Ed and Lorraine Warren's most famous case. This sequel picks up in 1977, a year after Amityville. In fact, the film opens with a re-enactment of the Amityville murders, and much of the first act centers around the Warren's newfound fame and their reluctance to take another case. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Hodgson family is dealing with one of the scariest hauntings in recent memory. The family is in bad financial shape and they're living in a small house in Enfield, a northern suburb of London. Things are rough, but when the ghosts start showing up, things somehow get even worse.
At night, Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe) begins to experience strange things. Her sleepwalking becomes worse than ever, her bed shakes, and she hears the menacing voice of Bill Wilkins (Bob Adrian), who says that he's coming to take back his home. Janet's brother, Johnny (Patrick McAuley), also sees bizarre things, and within a short amount of time, the situation gets out of hand and it's clear that something demonic is occurring. Peggy Hodgson (Frances O'Connor) inadvertently turns the house into a media circus, but with unhelpful assistance from a variety of experts (Simon McBurney, Franka Potente), the family turns to the two people who they know can be trusted- Ed and Lorraine Warren.
The Conjuring thrived on atmosphere. The jump scares were intense and the action escalated in intensity as the film progressed, but that wasn't what made it so frightening. It was the vibe that James Wan consistently created throughout the course of the film. From the period costumes to every facet of the old house to the music, Wan's direction and precision made you uneasy. The filmmaker ramps that up for the sequel, creating an atmosphere so rich, so vivid, and so downright terrifying that you'll practically feel the chill coming off the screen (ironically, the theater where I saw the film is usually a sauna- this time, it was frigid). Wan could have easily turned this into a retread, but instead, he proves to be continually inventive. The Conjuring 2 almost has the feeling of a noir horror film, while still retaining the vibe that was so perfect the first time around.
This terrific sense of atmosphere is what creates the truly terrifying nature of the film, and the two elements complement each other so well. The Conjuring 2 is exceptionally scary, filled with nearly unbearable tension and some moments that made me jump right out of my seat. There's barely a moment in these films where you can actually breathe (and believe me, this is a compliment). There's always the sense that something is lingering right around the corner, the belief that nobody is ever safe. Wan is excellent at staging intense setpieces, moments that start with a noise or a brief movement that elevate into something that will make you shriek with terror. The Conjuring was one of the scariest film in recent memory. Believe it or not, The Conjuring 2 takes the scare factor to an entirely new level. I had chills running down my spine.
It would certainly be satisfying enough for The Conjuring 2 to succeed as just a very scary horror movie, but Wan takes it even further than that. This franchise has always been based firmly in its characters and this is the most emotional entry yet. Plenty of horror films have done great things in the past with disposable characters, but what makes this series so special is the way that it creates genuine characters and allows the audience to understand their struggle. You feel the love between Ed and Lorraine Warren. You see her fear of losing him. Wan spends time showing how tough things are for the Hodgsons and how close they are, which raises the emotional stakes when the demons show up. This level of emotional involvement is rare for a horror film. And I don't think that Wan's achievement here should be understated in any way.
Much of the film's emotional work hinges on the actors, and once again, the stars at the forefront are terrific. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga have excellent chemistry and they make for a formidable duo as the Warrens. Wilson is slowly becoming one of my favorite actors (his role in Fargo is tremendous), and his performance in The Conjuring 2 highlights so much of why I think he's a great performer. Wilson is able to display a stern focus and intensity that is matched by his tenderness and general amiability, creating a character that is lovable all-around. Farmiga's quiet, understanding reserve is matched by her ability to convey the demons that hang over Lorraine's head. The two are mesmerizing to watch and I would absolutely love it if they kept playing these characters forever. They've created something really special here.
The supporting cast is phenomenal as well, led by a great performance from Madison Wolfe. The young actress, who has previously appeared in Joy, Trumbo, Keanu, and The Campaign, shows a terrific range. She can be both endearing and horrifying and I think that she ultimately did a very good job of showing how scared Janet Hodgson was during this incident. The other Hodgson kids, played by Lauren Esposito, Benjamin Haigh, and Patrick McAuley, are brilliant as well, creating a sense of the connection of the family unit. Frances O'Connor is strong as Peggy Hodgson, who has to deal with a lot of insanity as the single mother in the family. Maria Doyle Kennedy and Simon Delaney provide kind moral support as the Nottingham family, while Simon McBurney and Franka Potente round out the ensemble well.
As if the skill of the direction and performances wasn't enough, The Conjuring 2 is also one of the sharpest-looking films of the year. One of the defining aspects of this series has always been its period style, and this time out, the filmmakers throw in a Christmas setting to make things even better. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if The Conjuring 2 became a part of my yearly Christmas rotation. It's about as Christmas-y as Die Hard, but I'm gonna count it anyways. The look is simultaneously gritty and slick, equipped with a studio sheen, but feeling distinctly like a movie out of the 1970s. The London fog is so chilling, the night cinematography so mesmerizing, the camera work so fluid and beautiful- this movie is just excellent on a variety of levels.
If there's a flaw to be found, it would be the repetitiveness of the film at some points. Running long at 133 minutes, I think Wan could have easily shaved it down to two hours in order to create a tighter, more laser focused package. The film gets caught up with just a few too many scenes of strange happenings at the Hodgson house. By the fifth time that something had gone bump in the night, I started to grow a little weary and I wasn't sure if Wan had lost a little bit of direction. Sure enough, he pulls things together eventually, but the repetition still sticks out as the only glaring flaw in an otherwise impeccably made film.
Frightening, emotional, and gorgeously made in equal measure, The Conjuring 2 is one of the greatest horror sequels ever created. Minor quibbles aside, this is pretty much a perfect chiller and a representation of everything that can happen when a horror movie is made right. Wan is undoubtedly one of the most skillful directors to arrive in Hollywood in years, and although he's headed over the DC Films to direct Aquaman next, I hope that he never loses sight of this franchise and the genre that he has dominated for years. Ambitious in scope and richly textured, this just might be Wan's greatest achievement thus far. The Conjuring 2 is a classic horror blast.
THE FINAL GRADE: A (9/10)