As years pass, and time forgets those less fortunate genre duds, The Conjuring 2 will continue to be mentioned in the same breath as Evil Dead II, Dawn Of The Dead and Aliens when fans debate their favorite – aka the greatest – horror sequels ever. This is James Wan’s “mic drop” moment, earning the sole title of THE Master of Modern Horror (though you can probably expect a Highlander-esque challenge from Adam Wingard shortly). Credit Wan with almost single-handedly keeping the mainstream horror genre relevant, driven by his now signature old-school, atmospherically-driven approach. Lighting, sounds, special effects – Wan’s vision delivers horror on a multitude of levels, which once again results in nothing short of pure nightmare fuel.
Pay attention, wannabes – class is in session.
Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) spent their lives investigating paranormal events, but none could top a career-defining haunting in London’s Enfield borough. It all starts when a single mother, Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor), reports suspicious activities in her North London home. Peggy’s daughter, Janet (Madison Wolfe), starts to suffer from nightly terrors, which are later witnessed by her siblings. For some reason, a malicious presence has latched itself to Janet, communicating through the young girl. As the infestation progresses, Janet’s dangerous trance prompts a visit from the Warrens. With no time to waste, Ed and Lorraine begin fighting against Janet’s captor, working to free the young girl – but Janet may not be the target. Unfortunately, Ed and Lorraine might have been brought to Enfield for a reason…
Where The Conjuring was a more subdued affair, The Conjuring 2 plays to a wider horror marketability and bigger studio elements. The Warrens dealt with mostly unseen paranormal entities, yet Wan’s take on Enfield introduces a Slenderman-looking creature referred to as “The Crooked Man.” He’s a manifestation of fears, but some might feel this lumbering creature has no place in an exorcism film – to which I’d disagree wholeheartedly. “The Crooked Man’s” vicious lurking presents some of the more fun haunted aesthetics to hit the genre as of late, hearkening back to other great examples like – well, like Wan’s own Devil Demon in Insidious. Again, this top-hatted abomination is in no way the film’s antagonist, just a familiar form to torment the Hodgson family. Which he does, EXTREMELY well.
Going against the grain, Wan’s clever avoidance of stereotypes ensures that we’re always gleefully unsettled, awaiting scares without warning.
“But Matt, bad things only happen in the dark! Haven’t you seen horror movies before?!”
No – only GENERIC horror movies ensure bad things happen at night. Exemplary horror filmmakers can conjure (HA!) scares during the day OR night – light OR dark – and Wan is one such visionary. His manipulation of fractured shadows keeps anxiety spiked as we await a demon’s lunge, but daytime attacks permit for equally scarring jolts. Which “attacks,” you ask? I’m not that nice – you’ll have to experience them yourself (AND SCREAM LIKE I SCREAMED). Just know that throughout The Conjuring 2, you’re never, EVER safe.
So how does James Wan continue to churn out such high-quality horror experiences while so many others fall disturbingly short? Look no further than The Conjuring 2‘s title card – simple yellow letters set against a black background. Nothing fancy, The Exorcist style. Wan’s appreciation of classic horror calls back to productions that scare not though gore, but beautifully unnerving layers. Visual scares mean nothing without proper pacing, buildups, scoring and established tone, which is something that many horror hopefuls forget.
These elements are exemplified during an encounter Lorraine Warren shares with a decomposing, fanged nun-demon, as we witness a minutes-long paranormal standoff without taking a single breath. Wan destroys you on SO many levels when compared to a baseless jump-scare with cheap appeal. That’s the mark of true horror mastery – knowing what’s coming, seeing the inevitable, yet STILL clenching your fists until sweat drips out.
Of course, horror is lost without convincing victims, which The Conjuring 2 does not lack.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga return as the famous faith-fighting Warrens, bringing with them the same brave attitudes from The Conjuring. Wilson knows what Wan is looking for in his horror characters, and works with Farmiga to bring A-list talent to a genre typically devoid of performance praise. The fear Farmiga battles – and suppresses – takes a heavy toll on Lorraine, but her charitable fire rages on nonetheless. Wilson’s persona is more brash and come-get-me in comparison, but together, the Warrens are a marital team deserving of Wan’s focus thanks to both actors.
By way of possession, Madison Wolfe becomes the most prolific Hodgson (for good reason), and Frances O’Connor hits on all the right notes of helplessness and motherly courage, only because Wolfe becomes one with her overlord. Other family members are present, but they’re relegated to small reactionary bits and fits of paranoia – this is Wolfe’s show from the beginning, yet she takes it by force anyway.
I will say this – The Conjuring 2 runs at a daunting 2:13, which does – admittedly – exhaust itself. It’s never dull nor uninviting, but momentum starts to taper off during a longer-than-necessary introduction, and again during an elongated midsection. Trimmed down, this might be a perfect horror film. As it stands, however, it’s still a tremendous, stone-cold chiller worth all the sleepless nights that’ll follow, but Wan (along with co-writers Chad/Carey Hayes; David Leslie Johnson) overloads a script that tries to hit every conceivable beat – relentless scares, emotional buildups, family backstory, connective cases and a million other points. Wan’s greatest accomplishment is stitching together almost all of the above and STILL delivering prime horror material – yet ups and downs snip what could have been one continual stream of screams.
Let’s get back to the fun part, though. The Conjuring 2 is a triumphantly pants-wetting sequel. Actually, scratch that. It’s less a sequel and more a new chapter that feels nothing like Wan’s previous Warren adventure. Just like how Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising redefined its franchise direction, The Conjuring 2 represents a playfully different horror beast.
As I watched Wan’s latest while peering above my notepad – forcing my eyes to remain wide-open – I kept catching a smile form, despite being scared senseless. This wasn’t a humorous half-chuckle-half-smile, but the joyful acknowledgement that Wan had once again reduced me to a quivering, vulnerable child, finding excitable life in an accelerated heart-rate. Above trembling knees and the constant cursing of Wan’s name, I was happy to be scared so deeply. Horror doesn’t do that anymore. When was the last time you were honestly, viciously scared by a GOOD horror film? The Conjuring? Sinister? Insidious? Anguish? Add The Conjuring 2 to that list, and mark it with my ghastly seal of approval.
Experiencing terror this deep shouldn't be so fun, but The Conjuring 2 only furthers James Wan's case for being the top horror filmmaker in our modern era.