Entering the canon of sequels that are better than the original, “The Conjuring 2” exceeds the scope and scares of the surprise ’70s-era horror hit from 2013. “The Conjuring,” starring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, reminded audiences of the power of a good ghost story and proved director James Wan to be a legitimate master of horror. The trio have returned to spook the pants off audiences again, and the sequel is a perfectly executed retro haunting flick that dives deep below the surface to explore themes of vision, belief and faith in what lies beyond the human realm.
Like its predecessor, “The Conjuring 2” is a bit of a bait and switch. While the first film teased us with the story of haunted doll Annabelle before diving into the haunting of the Perron family, the sequel starts out with a taste of Amityville before hopping across the pond to take on the Enfield Poltergeist in England. Though Lorraine, plagued by blasphemous visions of her husband’s death, wants to take time off from their work, they are compelled by the church to verify the veracity of the claims that a vicious inhuman spirit has possessed young Janet Hodgson.
Wan, with veteran cinematographer Don Burgess, shows a mastery over the camera as a storytelling tool and creates evocative, bone-chilling suspense with just a simple pan or tilt. The camera is almost constantly moving, maintaining a sense of unrest in the environment. It switches between handheld point-of-view shots from the perspective of the characters and an omniscient camera that seems to have a mind of its own, weightlessly sweeping through rooms and drifting up into corners with a spectral presence. As a director, Wan activates the audience’s mode of looking, and teaches us to fear what lies just outside the boundaries of the frame. The big, scary thing is often hiding in plain sight.
In laying bare the process of sight, Wan mirrors the interlocked, and sometimes contradictory, themes of vision and belief in “The Conjuring 2.” For the characters in the film, seeing is believing when it comes to what’s happening in the Hodgson home. But visual evidence is complicated in the film; it’s never quite trustworthy, despite the reams of video and audiotape of Janet’s possession. It’s easier to trust Lorraine’s psychic visions of otherworldly forces. Belief in the unseen and faith in each other is the bedrock of Ed and Lorraine’s relationship, which is the moral compass of the story.
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This film is the bigger, badder version of “The Conjuring.” Wan, fresh off directing “Furious 7,” occasionally strays toward CGI-enhanced bombast to elicit scares, rather than his subtle and effective camera work. Those animated boogeymen just aren’t as terrifying as the things we know are there, but can’t quite see.
If anything, “The Conjuring 2” plays as a spiritual sequel to “The Exorcist,” with Madison Wolfe stepping into the Linda Blair role as the vulnerable Janet Hodgson. Set in the same time period, there are similar sociopolitical anxieties about class, family and motherhood swirling around the Hodgson family’s supernatural plight. It’s easy to reference the classics, but “The Conjuring 2” is an evolved, modern version of this story, and establishes its own classic status as film in conversation with both the past and future of horror.
The Conjuring 2
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Madison Wolfe, Frances O'Connor, Simon McBurney, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Franka Potente
Director: James Wan
Rated R (terror and horror violence)