Mark Reviews Movies

The Conjuring 2


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: James Wan

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Madison Wolfe, Frances O'Connor, Lauren Esposito, Benjamin Haigh, Patrick McAuley, Simon McBurney, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Simon Delaney, Franka Potente, Bob Adrian, Bonnie Aarons, Javier Botet

MPAA Rating: R (for terror and horror violence)

Running Time: 2:13

Release Date: 6/10/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 9, 2016

Unlike its predecessor, which only paid lip service to the notion, The Conjuring 2 makes room for some skepticism. There's not too much, obviously, because that would ruin the experience. Like The Conjuring, the sequel is cemented in a belief of ghosts and evil spirits that have nothing better to do than to haunt and terrorize a fairly ordinary family. Also like its predecessor, this film gives a sense of immediacy and unpredictability to well-trodden material. In other words, it's very much like the first film in terms of story, philosophy, and technique, but that's not a problem. If it isn't broken, well, you know the rest.

If anything, the follow-up doubles down on the presence of those otherworldly entities. They're shown with far more regularity than they were in the first film, which kept whatever evil was lurking in the house to the shadows until the climactic showdown. Here, we see them more and more of them. That's a bold decision on the part of director James Wan, who evoked a sense of dread in the first film partly because of the limited use of ghastly beings. To give away the game so early and so often is almost asking for trouble. After all, how many times can we see a demon jump into frame before the trick becomes silly or just downright irritating?

The fact that the sequel is as effective as the original in its generation of atmosphere and scare tactics, though, is greatly due to Wan's formal command of the material. Wan does the work. Yes, he occasionally relies on jump scares, but there's nothing cheap about them here. He establishes the build-up to those moments so that they are an actual surprise. There's no predicting when or from where a scare will come, because he's far too skilled in the art of misdirection for a pattern to form.

Wan, along with editor Kirk M. Morri, plays with the rhythm of these sequences. He, along with cinematographer Don Burgess, toys with lighting and focus—both in terms of the camera and to where the audience's eye is drawn—in order to keep our expectations off-kilter.

There are other times when the director simply shows us exactly what is happening and where to look without any sleight of hand. These scenes are still frightening, too, because there comes a point after witnessing so much misdirection that the act of being explicit becomes a form of misdirection unto itself. If you expect the unexpected for long enough, the expected eventually is going to throw you for a loop.

The story sees the return of Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), the married pair of paranormal investigators whose relationship takes on a new level of sincerity here. The prologue, set in 1976, deals with the Amityville "haunting," the most famous case in which the couple was involved.

The screenplay by Chad and Carey Hayes (the fraternal duo returning from the previous film), Wan, and David Johnson finds a clever, convenient way to work around the pesky little fact that the whole Amityville brouhaha was a hoax. It doesn't matter if the evidence of that "haunted" house was faked, as is asserted by a skeptic during a television debate, because Ed and Lorraine are the genuine article. Here, the Amityville house is really haunted by the spirit of a man who killed his family and the demon that inspired him to do so. Lorraine, though, is the only one who can see both otherworldly presences, which she does, taking on the herky-jerky point of view of the murderer, during the film's disturbing opening sequence.

Within that vision, we're also introduced to a genuinely scary demon dressed as a nun (Bonnie Aarons), which keeps appearing to Lorraine and even comes to Ed in a dream, leading him to paint a portrait of the thing. That painting figures into yet another terrifying sequence in which Wan uses it as a near constant focal point, even as the silhouette of the demon begins creeping around the room.

Here, there's no bait-and-switch attempt—drawing our attention to one area of the screen, only to surprise us in another. No, Wan simply follows the real threat, keeping the painting in frame as a constant reminder of what inevitability will come from the unstoppable forward progress of the shadow. The experience of this particular incident is heightened by the way the film (and, to a degree, its predecessor) has established the Warrens' home as place of relative safety—not to mention the fact that it takes place during the day.

The Warrens again are almost side players in the story. The family being terrorized by a ghost lives in the Enfield borough of London. Eleven-year-old Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe), the younger daughter of the family of two girls and two boys, begins to hear and see the apparition of an elderly man (Bob Adrian) who died in the house. The girl's single mother Peggy (Frances O'Connor) struggles to make ends meet after her husband abandoned the family.

A presence like the one in the house, Lorraine later explains, feeds off of such distress, and that hardship also makes the family here instantly relatable. Their situation helps to sow the seeds of doubt about the reality of the haunting, and the relationship between Janet and Ed, who becomes a father figure without the film spelling it out for us, is both tender and another level of skepticism (If she's doing it for attention, why would she stop when she gets it?). Wan further encourages the suspicion by way of perspective—who witnesses what and who only hears about certain occurrences.

The insertion of doubt doesn't stop the scare sequences of The Conjuring 2 from having bite, though. Children's playthings become omens of evil, such as a toy firetruck that shouldn't be moving and a zoetrope from which an animated character disappears, only to reappear somewhere else. A one-take in which one out-of-focus figure in the background subtly morphs into another is particularly crafty and unsettling. Even the old cliché of the dark basement gets a minor revamping with the addition of waist-high water. These are old tricks, but just as with the first film, the filmmaking team makes them feel fresh.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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