Perhaps inevitably, The Conjuring 2 can’t exert the primal, pared potency of its immediate predecessor, although it certainly tries to: James Wan’s sequel to his original film is blissfully insular, wonderfully happy to simply exist without the burden of a franchise on its back. In practice, this eases the transition to the pulpy genre material, the bread and butter of director Wan’s craft, with the film resisting the urge to force itself through the fire-trial of self-legitimization through psychoanalytic babble or metaphoric shenanigans. It’s another “from the files of” ghostly haunted house yarn, plain and simple, one that doesn’t unpack box after box of added meaning as most films do when they are overconfident in their skills and try to take on the world. Although it doesn’t quite justify Wan’s A-list status and meteoric rise to artistic credibility after striking out last decade with Saw and Dead Silence, The Conjuring 2 is primarily pleased to serve its principal interests of satisfyingly lean, mean flair and virtuosity.
Admittedly, it is not always exclusively happy to serve those interests, deepening the texture of the film by transforming it into a dramatic study of main characters, and serial ghost hunters, Ed and Lorraine Warren, a decision that forces the film over hot coals it isn’t always wearing the right shoes for. The Conjuring 2 is certainly less discriminate in its jettisoning of excisable material than its immediate predecessor, perhaps mistaking the Warrens for philosophically interesting characters when they were simply part of the minutiae in the first film. While that original film took precautions to not tarnish its reputation with unnecessary character histrionics or overburdening back-story, The Conjuring 2 is significantly more uneasy about whether this is a ghost story or a Catholic crisis of faith. It’s not as leaden as last year’s Crimson Peak in this regard; it doesn’t drag its protagonist through the coral reef of stating dialogue about how ghosts are metaphors for the flickering memories of the past. But it’s still more weight than the screenplay for The Conjuring 2 can handle without straining itself for subtlety that isn’t always present in the screenplay by Wan, Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes, and David Leslie Johnson.
Still, in part because actors Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga exude a domesticated fear and sense of wearying awareness of the light dying around them in the roles, the characters do exude a frazzled, lived-in companionship. Ultimately, their world-weary, distressed demeanors and momentary slips of joy (like a wonderful impromptu Elvis sing-along) sell the passage of time and their plight as lone figures for whom public belief in their supernatural claims is only ever accompanied by a threat to the couple’s lives when they are called on to investigate spectral beings. Even if the actors’ talents are only partially requited by a screenplay that occasionally leads them astray, the attempt – to say the least – to intensify the chills with the added weight of character is ultimately moderately effective even if it sacrifices the economical tensile strength of the under-two-hours original film.
Besides, although it occasionally caucuses with the party of too much complication, Wan’s new film is largely faithful to its things-that-go-bump-in-the-night constituency by focusing on the where’s and when’s of ghostly behavior without presuming it is intelligent enough to clarify, and thus pacify the threat of, the “why”. Like Ed and Lorraine, it undertakes a task – in the film’s case, adding in a lot of over-baked Catholic symbolism – that it ultimately survives through sheer determination and charismatic doggedness. The film wisely transfers to Enfield, London soon enough, where a new family of victims are being terrorized not only by the crisis of public housing in a Thatcherite London (even if she was only the head of the Conservative Party at the time) but by specters haunting their abode. There are missteps, of course; the early goings outside the house transfer the vague stench of uneasy American writers applying British slang and music history rather indiscriminately. But the film settles into Wan’s unmistakable groove of slippery long takes and excavation and manipulation of personal space as an avenue for horror, weaponizing his vivid camera as it tracks, skulks, and prowls around corridors and hallways, refracting filigrees of the supernatural through a terrifying lens of empty space and silent terror. Wan’s application of wide-open, contiguous space is also sublime in a genre that tends to rely on hidden passages, crevices, and what is not seen as a crutch.
Throughout, the film’s lack of visionary status – its reflection of carefully curated minimalism over bombast – is liberating in its straightforward classicism. Wan’s galvanizing imagery is, essentially, little more than a sturdy and implacable application of Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” understanding of suspense. It’s basic stuff, the idea that relying on the displacement between the audience and the characters in our relative knowledge of the situation produces suspense (essentially “show the bomb under the table fifteen minutes before it explodes, and before the characters know about it” to induce quiet panic in the audience, rather than simply introducing it to an unawares audience at the moment of explosion and catalyzing only the momentary, ultimately ephemeral shock). But this sort of cinematic carpentry is a forgotten craft, more often than not. And Wan’s casual mastery over foreboding and forewarning are brutally satisfying, inducing a nerve-frying exertion as the director channels the tactile push and pull of material objects into an animated equilibrium of the uncanny and the mundane. He weaponizes the domesticity and bric-a-brac of the ‘70s for decidedly less passive purposes than they were originally intended.
While Wan is harnessing the grammar of negative space and the quotidian to the thesis of fear, cinematographer Don Burgess deploys light strategically, swallows the initially confectionery palette and compositional whimsy of ‘70s life in darkened, fading light, and slithers around the house to awaken a sense of distress and to arouse our eyes to dart around open space and participate in the screen’s imagery. Slightly misplaced ambitions about the dramatic stakes of the material aside, the machinery on display here is inedible, even a forgotten art. None of the screenplay’s whiskers of unnecessary material are incorrigible when Wan’s filmmaking afflicts the screen with an egg-beaten sense of upturned reality. A throng of terror we expect, and Wan enjoins the characters to cross through his crucible of craft in reply. Maybe the film as a whole isn’t about to reconcile with the primeval beauty of the original, but Wan sure is ready to hold a séance for it, and even a resurrection.
Obviously more undisciplined than its immediate predecessor, this sequel is considerably more baroque and philharmonic in its insinuations than the crisp razzle-dazzle of the earlier film. This accentuation provides both opportunity for inlaid depth and space for misjudgment depending upon the minute. It’s also ever so slightly starving for the viciously empty, creaking halls of the first film’s mise-en-scene, instead packing in little slivers of comic detail around the house that suggest the clutter of everyday life, which is perhaps a fair trade-off. But, with the filmmaking radiating a kind of laconic instability that simmers at a slow-boil but is always just on the verge of cascading into the jittery darkness, The Conjuring 2 is mighty hard to peck at when it’s all up and down your spine.