Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: James Wan
Stars: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Frances O’Connor, Simon McBurney, Franke Potente, Madison Wolfe, Benjamin Haigh, Lauren Esposito, Patrick McAuley, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Simon Delaney, Bab Adrian.
Having established himself as one of the top directors of horror films working in Hollywood at the moment, James Wan (Saw, Insidious, etc) continues to mine the exploits of real life paranormal ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren in this sequel to the 2013 box office hit The Conjuring. The Warrens made their reputation after investigating the most famous haunted house in Amityville, as explained in the brief prologue here. But there was another famous haunted house investigated by the Warrens that left a deep psychological scar on the pair. This was the so-called Enfield House in England, which in 1977 became the scene of the longest recorded incident of paranormal activity.
The story of the Enfield poltergeist has been told several times before, and the Warrens’ actual involvement in the real life events was marginal. Nonetheless Wan and his co-writers Chad and Carey Hayes and David Leslie Johnson have taken some liberties with the story and expanded their role for dramatic purposes.
Peggy Hodgson (played here by Australian actress Frances O’Connor) is a single mother living in a decrepit older house on a leafy tree in a London borough with her four children, and struggling to hold her family together. Then there was the inexplicable phenomenon of beds shaking, doors slamming, furniture moving, toys coming to life, lights going out, and nocturnal sightings of a strange shadowy figure. Peggy’s youngest child Billy (Benjamin Haigh) is the first to witness some supernatural event with his toy firetruck seeming to come to life. Then eleven year old daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe, from Trumbo, etc) is begins to experience strange happenings. She was seemingly possessed by a malevolent spirit and would speak in a foreign tongue.
After the local police turned up to investigate the disturbances at the house, they reported the matter to the church. The church in turn asked the Warrens to investigate the claims of possession to see if there was a need for an exorcism. Since the events depicted in The Conjuring though they have scaled back their ghost busting activities, mainly because Lorraine is haunted by terrifying visions of Ed’s death.
While Lorraine is still reluctant to take on a new case, Ed believes that what they do is a calling and is keen to investigate. The pair head off to London. Upon arrival at the Hodgson’s house at 284 Green Street they soon discover that the former owner of the house, a man named Bill Wilkins, had died while sitting in a chair in the corner of the living room. His spirit seemed to be still in the house, but the house was also possessed by an evil demon causing mischief and mayhem.
Wan’s Saw was an effective example of torture porn, but he has shown greater subtlety and understanding of the horror tropes with his subsequent films like Insidious and The Conjuring. He takes his time here establishing the Hodgson family dynamics and giving us some of the Warrens’ backstory before unleashing the scares and shocks, which he orchestrates superbly. He builds up the tension slowly, taking his time to build up a sense of growing dread, until the climax when he cuts loose with some terrific set pieces. He uses a few well placed jump scares throughout the film to unsettle audiences. A brief scene involving a zoetrope and a song about a crooked man will evoke memories of the AFI-award winning Australian horror film The Babadook.
But some of the motifs are familiar to much of his other work and Wan does trot out a few familiar cinematic tricks. He has a good understanding of the tropes of the genre though. He also spices the material with little moments of welcome humour, and there is even a touching small scene where Ed sings to the children in an effort to temporarily allay their fears and bring a bit of normalcy to their situation.
Kudos must go to the production design from regular collaborator Julie Berghoff, who has created the dilapidated Enfield house complete, with flooded basement and crumbling floors and cracking walls. Joseph Bishara’s terrific score and Don Burgess’ greyish and moody cinematography are both quite atmospheric, and add to the uneasy feeling that Wan builds.
This is Wilson’s fourth collaboration with Wan, and he seems quite comfortable working in the horror medium. Although he and Farmiga are not given a lot to work with in terms of character development they do what is required, and they share a great chemistry. Farmiga has a strong presence as Lorraine, although here she also brings a vulnerability to her performance as she is questioning her faith after having witnessed some horrific and inexplicable events.
O’Connor is very good here as the put upon Peggy, and she brings a palpable level of anguish to her performance. She also seems to be channeling Sally Hawkins (a regular in Mike Leigh films) with her broad accent and haggard appearance. Wolfe is also good as the possessed Janet. Wan puts her through a mental and physical wringer here, but she is more than up to the challenge. Rounding out the cast are Simon McBurney, who plays Maurice Grosse, a a real life fellow British ghostbuster from the Society for Psychical Research, who did most of the heavy lifting in the real story, and Franke Potente (from Run Lola Run, etc), who plays Anita Gregory, a skeptical academic who tries to prove that events in the house are a hoax.
The Conjuring 2 is a stylish, classically constructed and slightly old fashioned horror film that owes a debt to the classic The Exorcist and even Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist. It has a strong emotional core as it explores universal themes of faith, belief, religion, family and love. The Conjuring 2 is also that rare thing, a sequel that is every bit as good as the original. But with a running time of 134 minutes, the film’s pacing is a little uneven and may test the patience of hard core horror fans.