2013's acclaimed supernatural chiller "The Conjuring
" began with opening onscreen text portending that of the thousands of cases real-life married paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren worked on during their careers, one was more malevolent than the rest. With such a lofty claim made about that picture's story of a 1971 farmhouse haunting in Harrisville, Rhode Island, one had to wonder if a sequel would live up to its precursor or be a half-baked redux. Fans needn't have been concerned. Under the helm of skilled writer-director-frightmaker James Wan (2011's "Insidious
"), "The Conjuring 2" comes mighty close to matching the original. In a subgenre filled to bursting with ghostly specters and demonic entities terrorizing any number of unsuspecting home owners, Wan and co-writers Carey W. Hayes & Chad Hayes (2009's "Whiteout
") and David Johnson (2012's "Wrath of the Titans
") care about their characters just as much as they do about concocting scares. They also give their audience the credit so many studio-released horror pictures do not, allowing scenes to vividly and emotionally play out without feeling the need to constantly go for obvious jolts. "The Conjuring 2" is classy filmmaking, trusting that a compellingly foreboding story and genuine craftsmanship can make a familiar premise fresh again.
A year after Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) were catapulted to fame following their 1976 investigation into a particularly infamous murder house in Amityville, New York, the pair are relieved to return to their suburban home life with daughter Judy (Sterling Jerins). Beset by visions of Ed's violent death, clairvoyant Lorraine thinks it best to step back from taking on any new cases. Turning down someone's plea for help is easier said than done, however, and soon Ed and Lorraine are off to the small North London burg of Enfield, England, where single mum Peggy Hodgson (Frances O'Connor) and her four children are being preyed upon by the violent spirit of a 72-year-old man. Hesitant to get involved until the Hodgsons' claims are substantiated, the local church hopes Ed and Lorraineas well as researcher Maurice Grosse (Simon McBurney) and skeptical parapsychologist Anita Gregory (Franka Potente)will be able to prove whether or not the case is a hoax. Complicating matters is Lorraine's difficulty in immediately sensing activity in the house, even as her intuition suggests Peggy and 11-year-old Janet (Madison Wolfe) are telling the truth.
"The Conjuring 2" follows a conventional narrative path, but transcends it on multiple occasions as James Wan unleashes his bag of macabre tricks. Much like the imperiled Perron clan in "The Conjuring
," the Hodgson family are indelibly observed early on, believable as a tight-knit unit struggling to push forward after their husband and father abandoned them. When Janet discovers she has begun sleepwalking at night, she finds it curious, but it is not until she has a terrifying experience while home alone sick that she realizes someoneor somethingis lurking in her home. As these creepy touches with the other side escalate amongst the other family members until even the initially disbelieving Peggy sees it for herself, their first reactionracing in tandem across the street to their neighbors' houseearns nervous laughter from its genuineness. It is nice to see a film of this sort allowing its protagonists to react to situations in an honest manner, free of the dumb choices and interminable contempt of frequent horror-movie characters.
Pitch-perfect performances further aid in giving reality to the material. Vera Farmiga (2014's "At Middleton
") and Patrick Wilson (2013's "Insidious: Chapter 2
") continue where they left off as Lorraine and Ed Warren, giving a warm, lived-in vibe to their moments together; indeed, the trust, respect and love they share consistently shines through. Frances O'Connor (2001's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
"), who hasn't been as prolific on the big screen in recent years, returns with an exquisitely modulated turn as Peggy Hodgson, fierce in her protectiveness for her children. Above all, it is Madison Wolfe (2016's "Keanu
"), as daughter Janet, who is the picture's most exciting find. Wolfe's role is demanding in ways that would daunt the most seasoned of adult actors. She must be petrified and vulnerable yet equipped with inner strength, instantly sympathetic even as the spirit targets her body as a conduit for its own malicious doings. No matter what each moment calls for, Wolfe lets go of all apparent inhibitions and sells it.
"The Conjuring 2" has the goods to give a case of the jitters to just about anyone, including the not easily rattled. A recurring motif involving a spinning zoetrope and a gangly-limbed nursery rhyme figure called The Crooked Man builds deliciously stressful tension, while a hair-raising set-piece set in the Warren home where Lorraine is stalked by the same demonic nun whose painted likeness hangs on their office wall is stunningly crafted. The Christmas setting offers plenty of chances to give seemingly innocuous holiday songs ("Hark the Herald Angels Sing," for one) an eerie undercurrent. Tag-teaming with 2015's M. Night Shyamalan-directed "The Visit
," the film also proves once and for all that the elderly can be tremendously scary. Only a few uses of unnecessary CG and a climactic exposition-heavy exchange remotely threaten to break the spell (they thankfully don't).
If "The Conjuring 2" works effectively in exactly the way it intends, it additionally excels in its atmospheric restraint and attention to detail. Wan understands not every setup has to end with a cheap musical stinger, and not every scene has to hold the single-minded purpose of spooking. Because caring about and believing the people on the screen is equally as important, it comes as an invaluable respite when Wan slows the proceedings down enough to, for example, observe a sing-along to "Can't Help Falling in Love" led by Ed. By this point, all involved have earned this shared moment of levity and relief. They have quite a battle ahead of them. Perhaps the most telling evidence "The Conjuring 2" had done its job occurred an hour after the screening, once I had returned home. Walking into the darkness upstairs, my mind inescapably imagining the untold terrors waiting just around the corner ready to pounce, I couldn't reach for the lightswitch fast enough.