Review: James Wan bests his own best with ‘The Conjuring 2’

At the end of James Wan”s The Conjuring, I had a big smile on my face at the thought of a studio building a smart and fun horror franchise using Ed and Lorraine Warren as the foundation, and tonight, after seeing The Conjuring 2, I am relieved to see that they got it absolutely right.

The screenplay, credited to Carey Hayes & Chad Hayes & James Wan and David Leslie Johnson, is very smart about the way it opens with a seance in the Amityville house. Amityville is where the Warrens made their reputations as paranormal investigators, so it makes sense to eventually tell that story, but it”s also been made and re-made and told a dozen different ways. Instead of making the mistake of dedicating an entire film to it, they use it to set several story threads into motion and also to show how the Warrens were constantly challenged during TV appearances and called phonies. When they were releasing the first film, I had a chance to moderate a panel at WonderCon with Lorraine Warren, and talking to her before and after the event, I was struck by just how simply and directly she believes what she says. I may not buy the story that they tell, but I believe that she believes it. That belief is what binds Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed (Patrick Wilson) in the film, and the strength of their marriage is their superpower in these films.

The story of the Enfield poltergeist has been told several times, both officially and unofficially, and I”m a big fan of Ghostwatch, the very-loosely-adapted mockumentary version that aired on the BBC in the early ’90s. There”s an interesting TV limited series from the UK in 2015 that starred Timothy Spall that I thought was an interesting attempt to tell a very realistically-scaled and openly skeptical version of the story. But Wan”s movie, built as the further adventures of Ed and Lorraine, is a classically-structured haunted house story. There”s a fair amount of time spent setting up the life of Peggy Hodgson (Frances O”Connor) and her struggle to hold her family together in Thatcher”s England. The actual events took place between 1977 and 1979, and Julie Berghoff”s production design, aided by the expert art direction of Fiona Gavin, A. Todd Holland, and Andrew Rothschild, the set decoration by Liz Griffiths and Sophie Neudorfer, and the costume design by Kristin Burke, manages to pin this to a particular time and place without overdoing the period detail. It”s so subtle but grounded that it never overpowers the film, instead helping to make the scares feel very real. The set itself is a marvel, and just like in the first film, Wan”s built himself a huge haunted house where he controls everything. Every sound, every detail of the painting and the decoration, every shadow. The control exhibited here by Wan is incredible, and he has become one of our most reliable mainstream creators of spook shows at this point. I love that there”s a hint of Raimi here in the tone, with Drag Me To Hell in particular feeling like it”s bouncing around in there somewhere.

Janet (Madison Wolfe) is the first Hodgson to be affected by the haunting in their home, and because she shares a room with Margaret (Lauren Esposito), both girls quickly are upset by the events. By the time Billy (Benjamin Haigh) and Johnny (Patrick McAuley) are also involved, there”s no way Peggy can deny that her children are being affected by something or someone. Wan takes his time with the family and the details of the haunting, and by the time he brings Ed and Lorraine back, it”s possible some audiences will have forgotten they”re actually in the film. Lorraine”s worried because she”s had visions of Ed”s death, and she is reluctant to take on any new cases at all. She”s content hiding, and there”s a great moment in the middle of the film where she sees a crazy Demon Nun (Bonnie Aarons) in her home, a spirit that seems to be chasing them even in their own home. Ed can”t just hide, though. He believes that what they do is a calling, and when they see the Hodgson family in trouble, they can”t just turn their backs on them.

Wan builds several major set pieces here, and he gets a lot of mileage out of pretty much anything he sets in the house. There”s no real sense that this is “reality,” but who cares? When a movie is as effective at building a self-contained world as this one is, what”s important is the consistency within the film, and The Conjuring 2 gets that right. Things build from incident to incident, and when they do erupt in over-the-top fashion, it feels like Wan has taken his time and earned it. The entire cast is terrific together, and Madison Wolfe has to carry quite a bit of the film on her shoulders. She”s playing 11-year-old Janet, and she has to do some very adult things and play some very tricky scenes. Frances O”Connor is a great choice for Peggy, and she plays the reality of just how worn thin Peggy is even before the haunting begins. As in the first film, I really like Wilson and Farmiga together, and Wilson plays Ed as this big sweet Christian cowboy, ready to ride in and whoop up on the devil any chance he gets. With Lorraine Warren onboard as a consultant to these films, its hard to not see these as a sort of love letter to her departed husband. There”s a scene where Ed tries to distract the Hodgson kids for a few moments using Elvis music, and it could easily be one big cringe if played wrong. Wilson and Farmiga both are excellent in the scene, though, each of them playing their part perfectly. He”s so decent and so sweet, and she”s so aware of how lucky she is, and between the two of them, we get this snapshot of why this marriage works. I am a fan of movies where we see married couples who function beautifully as a team, and even more than the scares, that”s what I like here. Ed and Lorraine aren”t going to let anything stop them from the task they”ve given themselves, and as long as they have one another, they are going to be able to face any foe.

With a rich supporting cast, a smart script, and an ensemble that is put through their paces in some intense physical scenes, The Conjuring 2 is that rare horror sequel that stands toe to toe with the original, possibly even improving on it, and I suspect this will not be the last we see of the Warrens at work.

The Conjuring 2 opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.