James Wan has done it again. The man who started out with Saw, a low budget indie flick set almost entirely in one small room, has proven that it is possible to show great improvement with each passing film, and it is feasible to make every movie scarier than the last. Just when it seemed that he couldn’t surpass the frights he conjured up with his last picture, he comes back on the scene again with a vengeance, delivering The Conjuring 2, his most stylistic and best feature to date.
Real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren countered countless obstacles over their many years together while battling the forces of evil, but their most well documented and arguably most challenging case of all was that of the Enfield Poltergeist in 1977. Centered in a council house in the suburbs of London, England, a malevolent presence made itself known by taking advantage of the most vulnerable soul it could sink its claws into: an eleven-year-old girl named Janet Hodgson. One of four children, little Janet began experiencing strange activity late one night when a harsh voice full of hatred reached out to her and commanded her to get out of his house. Of course, despite her anxious pleas, her family didn’t believe what she was reporting was true, until they began witnessing paranormal events themselves. Beds were shaking, kids were levitating, objects flew across the room with explanation, and little Janet began speaking in low guttural growls claiming to be a man named Bill who died in their house many moons ago. Her mother, Peggy, desperate for an answer and devoid of help from legal authorities, turned to the church, and eventually, to the Warrens, for assistance. What followed were several of the most trying months of her and her family’s life, as they struggled to survive the spirit that refused to leave their home.
Enter James Wan, master of suspense. The man who brought us Dead Silence, Insidious, and The Conjuring, is back again with another terrifying tale of the Warrens, and a family in distress. It might be hard to believe that the director who brought the tension to his audiences so many times before could be capable of improving upon his past projects and creating a film that’s even more petrifying than anything he’s ever done before, but this reporter is here to tell you: believe the hype. Wan has just made his scariest movie yet, and it’s called The Conjuring 2.
The movie itself follows the real life case on nearly all fronts. Starting out with a scene based in Amityville, New York, Lorraine Warren experiences a traumatizing journey into the past when she attempts to find out the truth about what happened in the bedrooms upstairs – was the man who shot this family acting out of anger, or was he actually being possessed by demonic activity that forced him to commit these malicious acts? As Lorraine tries to uncover the truth, she unintentionally opens up the vessel to a different plane – one that shows her how her husband dies. Scared for Ed’s life, Lorraine swears off any future cases, but lo and behold, their most chilling endeavor is just on the horizon.
Meanwhile, in Enfield, little Janet begins slowly undergoing the effects of her very own ghostly phenomena, as an energy that identifies itself as old Bill Wilkins, the previous owner of the home, begins taunting her with late night frights and horrible dreams. It starts out small, with nightly events of sleepwalking and television sets changing channels by themselves, but as the days drag on, the seemingly harmless pranks turn to horrifying bouts of death threats and poltergeists. Unable to explain what’s happening and growing more frantic by the weeks, Ms. Hodgson reaches out to the Warrens, who reluctantly agree to help.
What happens next is slightly unusual. Upon the Warrens’ arrival, they find that there are, in fact, strange happenings strewn throughout this gloomy house, but as hard as she tries to open up to it, Lorraine can’t feel any sense of demonic activity within these walls. Is it possible that these kids are making up these stunning accusations? Is there any legitimacy to their claims? Is there really an evil entity toying with the Hodgsons’ sanity, or is this merely a case of bored children with overactive imaginations? Only time will tell, but one thing’s for sure: Lorraine is scared to death of losing her husband, and the closer they come to hell, the more she wishes they’d hang up their hats and call it a day.
The second Conjuring ups the ante in almost every way. Not only is it the Warrens’ most publicized case, making it feel much more important, but it’s also much scarier than the first film, and consistently frightening throughout the entire two hour and thirteen minute runtime. Keeping an audience on the edge of their seats for such a long period of time is a difficult feat, but Wan manages to keep his viewers’ eyes locked to the screen by consistently pushing the envelope and brutally depicting a sweet, vulnerable little girl in life threatening peril.
Wan’s lucky, too, that he managed to find such a talented young actress to play his Janet Hodgson. Madison Wolfe portrays a very sympathetic victim of paranormal activity, which makes it much easier to relate to her and wish for her well being. On the flip side, she’s also very capable of depicting the bitter, brute old man who uses her and speaks through her, Mr. Bill Wilkins. It’s a strenuous role that calls for two very different personalities to be displayed in a believable manner, but somehow, this small girl who’s just starting out in the industry seemed to nail every take. With a lesser actor, some of these scenes might have come across as slightly laughable, but instead, Wolfe emits chills and sorrow and discomfort.
The fact is, this isn’t just James Wan’s creepiest movie to date, it’s also his most well made. Wan executes long oners and fluid tracking shots with ease, showing us all that this isn’t his first rodeo. It’s been a wild ride watching him all these years, as he started out as a name muttered at independent film festivals, and eventually grew into a sleek and stylish director who can frighten even the most jaded horror fans, and tap into the heart of even the most cynical movie goers. As he capitalizes on the idea of possession in the film, it becomes clear that the most terrifying thing about such circumstances isn’t the fact that a demonic plague has saturated every inch of this melancholy house, but that it has managed to isolate a sweet child from her loving family. The pain that we feel for Janet isn’t because of old Bill Wilkins terrorizing her mind, but that he dared to make her feel like she doesn’t belong with her friends, or around her very own kin. It’s a very unique way to discuss the power of love, and one that gets the message across, without being so cheesy that it can’t reach cynical viewers.
The only real complaint here is that the Warrens’ own daughter, who, if she has a name, this reporter didn’t catch it, is pretty much a useless character. She pops up once or twice, to give her parents a sleepy good morning kiss, and to point out a ghostly figure in the corner, but other than that, it seems like she really serves no purpose. It makes you wonder why they even bothered putting her in the film at all. It would’ve been nice to see a commentary started about the fact that the Warrens have to leave their own family at home to go and help out another one all the way across the pond, but instead, it just seems like this all but silent daughter only shows up to remind the audience that the real life Warrens did, in fact, have a child. It’s too bad, because it could’ve added another layer to their story, and made these paranormal investigators seem that much more relatable, but it’s not such a hindrance that it throws the story off to the point of being unenjoyable.
Aside from this one glaring issue, The Conjuring 2 is a terrific film. It’s a little long, but with a cast this spectacular and a story this moving, who cares? It’s an entertaining feature throughout, and, despite the fact that the ending is a very pleasing wrap up to the tale, leaves you wanting more – and hopefully, there will be. Wan seems comfortable turning all of his big hits into franchises, so it wouldn’t be that surprising if there were a third film announced at some point in the future. However, perhaps a much more likely event to occur is a James Wan-led Amityville spinoff feature. Considering the fact that the first Conjuring started out with a scene from the famous Annabelle case, and then that was turned into its very own solo film, it’s very feasible that because The Conjuring 2 begins with a scene from Amityville, New York, that we could see Wan displaying his take on the infamous case sometime soon. No matter what happens, one thing is certain, and that’s that Wan continues to be a master of horror, and the genre is very lucky to have him around.