The Conjuring 2 is, in a word, respectable. The acting is respectable. The attention-to-detail is respectable. The set designs are all respectable. The camera work is respectable. The lighting is respectable. The direction is especially respectable. It’s all respectable, and maybe to a fault.
Director James Wan’s sequel to his own 2013 smash hit is never less than well-made, but there’s something a little more hollow and unsatisfying about this time around. It’s not a bad film, that should be made clear. It’s a pretty decent one, especially as far as studio horror sequels go. But it never rises to the level of the original either, even with all the original players eagerly returning. What once felt fresh and invigorated is now a little stale, and what once was strikingly spooky is perhaps a little too predictable and familiar now to earn the same scares. It’s always honed with an impeccable craftsmanship and an occasionally masterful understanding of genre and tone. But much like Wan’s other horror sequel, Insidious: Chapter Two, The Conjuring 2 rigorously displays his best and worst tendencies as a filmmaker, all in equal measures.
Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson) are back, now roughly six years after the events of the first film. The paranormal investigator couple are now household names in some circles, but unfortunately not always for reasons they wish to be. Their credibility is constantly called into question. Nearly every public event they attend, whether it’s a lecture or a television speaking event, finds one or two sceptics questioning their methods. They’re sometimes shaken, but they never relent. They continue to fight the good fight in the name of their lord and savior, but it’s starting to take a toll on poor Lorraine.
Her visions promises grave danger in her husband’s future if they should continue practicing their trade, but Ed shakes off such premonitions. He knows what he’s doing is sound, and if his wife is, indeed, receiving dour messages from beyond about his demise, that means their Lord is trying to prevent his premature death. Whether or not that’s true will be determined when they investigate a particularly peculiar case in the London Borough of Enfield in England, as single working class mother of four, Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) finds herself and her family terrorized but an unrelenting demonic spirit stalking their house and upsetting their lower-class home.
His demands are simple: he wants his house back. The house hasn’t belonged to him in decades, perhaps centuries, but he doesn’t listen. It’s his house; he wants it back. They refuse, so he continues haunting them, stalking them throughout the night and specifically targeting Janet (Madison Wolfe), the youngest daughter, by startling her throughout the night, provoking her and, later, possessing her body. The police are helpless. The Catholic Church is at a lost. The only ones, then, that might be able to help are none other than the Warrens, but Lorraine doesn’t want to risk it. She continues to fear for her husband’s safety but, after some reluctance, they agree to fly over to determine whether this is real or simply a hoax. As they soon learn, however, it’s far from a prank, and Lorraine soon realizes her deadly visions may not have been as far-fetched as others’ believed.
Rather than add anything new to the formula, The Conjuring 2 merely doubles down on everything that did and didn’t work in the first film. There’s still a deep-seated respect for the patiently atmospheric horror-thrillers of the ‘70s era, and that informs the eeriness and dread drawn out in each-and-every scene. But the results are now more mixed. The scares are a little too similar, not only to the previous film but to every passing scene, and it makes it hard not to feel repetitive and monotonous. Likewise, while it has a better sense-of-humor about itself than it did before, this Conjuring sequel is still a little too stiff and uptight for its own good. Not every film needs to be Drag Me to Hell, I’m aware. But it’s nice to lighten up a little bit. Where is some of that wacky silliness that Wan brought to last year’s Furious 7?
Farmiga and Wilson are both fine, but their performances are noticeably less inspired this time around. I’m sure their hearts were in it, but they lack the spark they carried the first time around. Farmiga is the better of the two, as she’s allowed more opportunities to prove herself, but even she looks like she’s in a bit of a dull glaze throughout. Thankfully, though, the newcomers pick up some of that slack. Wolfe, in particular, is an impressive young talent, and she display a depth of range that’s well beyond her years. O’Connor, meanwhile, is vulnerable and emotionally unset without every feeling completely helpless. She carries a subtle strength that only becomes more rewarding as this sequel goes along, and it would have been better if we spend more screen time with her.
But then again, that would suggest this film needed to be longer, and that’s far from the case. At 134 minutes, a full 22 minutes longer than the previous film, The Conjuring 2 sometimes plays like an unfinished cut than the final draft. There are roughly 15-20 minutes that could, and should, have been cut, and the extended running time only makes Wan’s film feel stretched-out and dragged. It kills a lot of the foreboding tension that made the first Conjuring such an impressive feat, and it hammers home how flavorless and humdrum Wan’s style can become when it turns excessive.
As a technical feat, The Conjuring 2 is constantly impressive and always visually astounding, and it features what may very well be some of Wan’s best-directed sequences to date. And although he proved himself capable in the action blockbuster field, it’s evident the Saw director feels most at home in horror than anywhere else. It’s what suits him best, and I applaud him for bringing back some well-needed respect to the studio horror film. He’s made yet another dutifully well-crafted feature, and though it won’t have the re-play value of the first film, it’s worth watching if you enjoyed the ride the first time around. You’ll always marvel at the craft, even if the sequel can’t quite conjure up all the same jumps and thrills found so readily the first time around.