Even on his worst day, James Wan is one of the most talented 2000s-era horror filmmakers working in Hollywood. He is a man of many signatures with a knack for surrounding himself with equally talented collaborators. You can instantly identify Wan’s films (Saw, Furious 7) by their distinct production and set design, strong casting, memorably rattling boogeymen and bravura cinematography. The last of these is the most important element of his work: Unlike many of his peers, Wan treats the camera as a character more than as a tool. His DPs are often more essential to his ensemble than his principal and supporting actors. How he builds his big screen worlds is one thing. How we experience those worlds is another entirely, and Wan knows it.
Experience is the driving pleasure of his new film, The Conjuring 2, though describing a sequel to a box office behemoth as “new” is disingenuous. The Conjuring 2 isn’t “new.” It isn’t new as an idea or as an exercise in franchise maintenance. It doesn’t even break new ground for Wan, though that isn’t a fair critique to make of a guy with such obvious, natural skill behind the lens. Like most of his movies, The Conjuring 2 looks terrific and tactile. You get the sense that if you so chose, you could blithely reach out and brush the well-considered dilapidation of the film’s mise-en-scène with your fingertips, though you’d probably end up with a few splinters or a bite mark.
Like The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2 adapts the real-life paranormal encounters of ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, reprising their roles from the 2013 film) into fictionalized narrative. Rather than focus on an American haunting, though, the film jets us over to England in a remarkably half-assed montage of generic British iconography set to the tune of “London Calling,” a song that’s only relevant to the film’s location because it has “London” in the title. What does a song about the Three Mile Island accident, police brutality and The Clash’s personal debt have to do with a girl’s struggle with demonic forces? About as much as it has to do with Amityville, the case the Warrens are best known for and the basis for one of horror’s most inexplicably long-standing series—yet that’s exactly where The Conjuring 2 begins before traipsing across the pond.
In context with The Conjuring 2’s plot, the reference to Amityville makes sense, but it’s still unnecessary legwork. The film’s central horror lies in Enfield, where the Hodgson family—single mum Peggy (Frances O’Connor), sons Johnny (Patrick McAuley) and Billy (Benjamin Haigh), and daughters Margaret (Lauren Esposito) and Janet (Madison Wolfe)—live in fear of an unseen entity bedeviling their home. Furniture moves by itself, toys play with you when you play with them, and infernal, digitally altered voices bark at you from the shadows. It’s standard-issue haunted house stuff, filtered with Wan’s nonstandard gifts for aesthetics and engineering scares. He plays visual sleight of hand with the audience, convincing us to look at the center of the frame as terror closes in around the edges. We vault from our seats before we notice his deceptions.
The film is a blast as a funhouse-style genre exercise, but there’s very little holding it all together. If The Conjuring offended some with its historical revisionism, at least that film had cohesion. The Conjuring 2, meanwhile, plays with themes that never wind up being fully developed. Once the Warrens come to the Hodgsons’ aid, Ed explains that wicked spirits have a particular affinity for negative energy, and tend to manifest when bad things happen to people in their lives. “They like to kick us when we’re down,” he tells Peggy, and the Hodgsons are indeed down by anyone’s definition. Their home is deteriorated: The walls are peeling, the woodwork is cracked, and the cupboards are bare of biscuits. But matters of economy and class are window dressing. The film’s core is Janet’s overwhelming sense of loneliness. As the primary target of her family’s supernatural tormentor, she has become totally isolated from her friends at school.
We don’t really see that, though. We just hear about it. The film’s script, penned by returning twin sibling screenwriting duo Chad and Carey Hayes, plus Wan, plus David Leslie Johnson, puts more emphasis on Lorraine’s premonitions of Ed’s death in an instance of just-too-muchery. There’s plenty at stake here without piling on incident and coincidence; invoking fate, that hackiest of all narrative conventions, is a serious waste of time when you already have evil breathing down the necks of your secondary characters. Lorraine’s anxiety over Ed’s apparent impending demise comes to supplant the film’s originating conflict. Not that we shouldn’t care about them—we do, if only because Wilson and Farmiga give us good reason to—but The Conjuring 2 loses steam when it’s about the Warrens at the expense of the Hodgsons. The film is at its best when it lets us relate to the latter’s normalcy faced with otherworldly perils.
Outside of that and Wan’s superior craftsmanship, though, it’s a series of setups that follow the same blueprint: Freaky stuff happens, the Warrens intervene, freaky stuff ceases. Rinse, lather, repeat. The Conjuring 2’s fright cycle becomes a pattern, the pattern becomes a routine, and the movie stops working as entertainment because we’ve seen Wan perform the same trick too many times. Take that as a sign. He can make visually interesting horror movies like this in his sleep (dig those sweet split diopters), he knows how to turn horror into sensation, and a lazy Wan film is still better than most of the crummy horror titles churned out by the studio system. But we deserve better than lazy Wan.
Director: James Wan
Writers: Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes, James Wan, David Leslie Johnson
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Madison Wolfe, Frances O’Connor, Patrick McAuley, Benjamin Haigh, Lauren Esposito, Franka Potente
Release Date: June 10, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.