I’m a big fan of James Wan. The likeable, enthusiastic, diminutive director always impresses, from his trendsetting Saw to the rebirth of the haunted house genre, Insidious and its sequel. I honestly believe that he’s well on his way to becoming this generation’s John Carpenter.
I also really enjoyed the first Conjuring movie, which meant this film had pretty big shoes to fill.
So would it enchant me?
Or would this outing spell disaster?
The Conjuring 2 (2016)
Dir: James Wan
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmigia, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Lauren Esposito, Patrick McAuley, Benjamin Haigh, Franke Potente, Simon McBurney
SPEEDY SYNOPSIS: I’ll try not to spoil too much here but read on at your own risk.
James Wan returns to the story of real life ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmigia) as they investigate ‘England’s Amityville’ — the infamous Enfield Poltergeist, a sinister supernatural presence that victimised a normal family, the Hodgsons in 1977.
When a restless spirit makes its presence known to young Janet (Madison Wolfe); her siblings Margaret (Lauren Esposito), Johnny (Patrick McAuley) and Billy (Benjamin Haigh); and long-suffering mother Peggy (Frances O’Connor), they come to the attention of psychic researchers Maurice Grosse (an unrecognisable Simon McBurney) and sceptical Anita Gregory (Franke Potente).
Stateside the case is referred to the Catholic Church, which sends Ed and a battle-weary Lorraine to assess whether this is a genuine case.
But how safe are they all — especially as Lorraine is haunted by a terrible vision depicting Ed’s violent death…
THE BEST BITS (mild spoiler warning): Let's cut straight to the chase — I’m delighted to say that The Conjuring 2 is a more than worthy sequel to the great first outing. It may even surpass the original film and totally washes away the bad-taste left in the mouth by 2014’s derivative, soulless spin-off Annabelle.
The cast impress in their roles, especially the sparkling central duo of Farmigia and Wilson. They are a fantastic screen couple with real chemistry and both show impressive acting chops as they bring their real-life counterparts to life. Wilson really is a fine leading man and once again his strong relationship with Wan yields dividends.
Fans of TV’s Bates Motel already know that Farmigia is an exceptional actress and she brings an impressive blend of warmth, vulnerability and steely toughness to her portrayal of Lorraine. It’s in their scenes together that they really shine, with a strong and believable rapport. Here’s hoping to more films of the Warren’s cases — perhaps more of the case covered at the start of the film, a case GUARANTEED to bring the horror crowds flocking.
However, these stars do take something of a back seat for the first act, so it’s a good thing that the actors playing the Hodgson family are so good. Sure, as somebody who lives a mere 25 minutes from the real Green Street, I did notice a couple of wobbly accents from some of the younger stars but they soon settle down. Elsewhere McBurney is excellent as Grosse and really could have done with more to do. Still, what we do get is fantastic.
The Hodgsons all impress, especially the great O’Connor, and we can’t help but find ourselves drawn into their plight, which is real testament to their performances.
It helps that the frights come thick and fast, with an early scene that pretty much lays the groundwork for every terrifying setpiece to come leading to some chilling payoffs. The scenes with young Billy’s tent and The Crooked Man zoetrope (a toy every bit as a ridiculously unsuitable for children as the Annabelle doll of the previous instalment) are standouts, while a scene in the Warren family home involving a Marilyn Manson-like demonic nun is a show-stealer.
Director Wan’s timing during these (and the myriad of other scares) is impeccable, while the flashy camerawork on display throughout shows plenty of creativity. Elsewhere there is some excellent effects work for the key ghouls and ghosts of the story. The restless spirit of Bill Wilkins is a little underwhelming but a certain long-legged, bowler-hatted entity is sure to get lots of love from horror fans while the profain nun is genuinely disturbing at times, especially during THAT intense scene.
This isn’t the only visual element to impress. The cinematography by Don Burgess adds creepy atmosphere and, when combined with the stunning period set dressing, really encompasses the gritty, grimy feel of the Seventies. It looks great throughout, and even the overdose of British Rain™ doesn't feel too much. Instead it adds to the atmosphere, as does the clever decision to play up the spookiness of the Christmas setting with plenty of eerie choir recitations of Christmas carols.
Clearly the whole film is a labour of love — you get the impression that James Wan and his cast and crew really care about doing this story and its characters justice… and scaring the living daylights out of us along the way.
THE WORST BITS (mild spoiler warning): Unfortunately, the main criticism I can level towards The Conjuring 2 is that Wan may be a little too invested in the characters as written by him and collaborators Carey and Chad Hayes, expecting us to share his affection towards them. This leads to a couple of overly sentimental scenes that veer perilously close to schmaltzy at times (a mid-movie sing-along is especially cloying, even if it does highlight a superb period soundtrack). There are some decidedly soppy conversations that may cause eye-rolling from some viewers.
Ultimately however, this is a price I’m prepared to pay for the chance to watch a horror film with genuine heart rather than mindless, inferior knock-offs and cash-ins.
Another problem I had with the film, albeit a rather minor one, was the manner in which the real-life major investigators of the phenomena at Green Street, Maurice Grosse and especially Guy Lyon Playfair, are marginalised in favour of the more glamorous Americans. Perhaps it’s because I was spoiled by Sky One’s exceptional drama, The Enfield Haunting, earlier this year, but it meant that fascinating personalities such as Maurice Grosse are given short shift. In real life his obsession with the paranormal was driven by the tragic loss of his young daughter, also named Janet. In this film that motive is touched upon very briefly in a single throwaway scene, then promptly discarded (along with Grosse himself) for the fast-paced climax.
Of course, this is a work of entertainment, a horror film not an extensively researched documentary, so in that regard perhaps these decisions can be excused, and not only that, it's a sequel to an established title so of course the stars of the previous film will be given more coverage. It’s just a shame because in terms of drama I feel a lot could have been mined from these characters.
VERDICT: It may have a couple of very minor flaws, but with The Conjuring 2 the brilliant Wan shows us all exactly what he brings to the table — skilled and reverential horror direction — and it is bloody impressive. Here’s hoping that this is just the latest chapter in a long-running franchise from this talented group of film-makers. Highly, highly recommended.
The Conjuring 2 hits UK cinemas next Friday, 10 June. Until then check out the film’s Facebook page for more information.
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Until next time, I hope you enjoyed your stay.