Following his diversion into Fast & Furious land, James Wan is back doing what he clearly loves most, and that is scaring the crap out of audiences. The Conjuring 2 is Wan's latest horror turn behind the camera, and what's fascinating about him is that he shows something different each time. Wan is a long way from the torture porn of Saw (which he created, let's not forget), and The Conjuring movies are different from what he does in Insidious. This time around he's indulging in not just one legendary case of real-life terror, but two of them: Amityville followed by the Enfield Poltergeist. That amount of supernatural wattage will surely shock the faint-hearted and leave them sleeping with a night light, even if at times it appears Wan has bitten off a little more than he chew.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga return as actual ghostbusting duo Ed and Lorraine Warren, the latter gifted with a clairvoyance that allows her to get frightfully close to the paranormal. Picking up from where the prior film left off, they're investigating the most famous case in American history, Amityville, in an effort to prove it was more than just a random murder. While engaged in a séance, Lorraine has an out-of-body experience that literally puts her in the killer's shoes. In this astral realm she catches a glimpse of Ed's impending death and is left spiritually scarred. What she sees causes her to retire, which Ed sees as a mistake since Lorraine's powers are a "gift from God".
Across the pond, a case that would become known as "London's Amityville" draws Ed and Lorraine off the interview circuit, where they face constant scrutiny from debunkers, and back into the field. Some old couch potato's demonic spirit is haunting the poor Hodgson family (Frances O'Connor as the mother of four) through 11-year-old daughter, Janet (Madison Wolfe). Unlike the prior movie which used the '70s period to tremendous psychological effect, Wan relies on standard tricks to get by this time. A boy's tent in the middle of the hallway will become a creepy hiding place for malevolent spirits later on; a child's empty swing moving ever so gently as if someone was just there, or a toy projector with the monstrous image of The Crooked Man. The Hodgsons can't stop themselves from exploring every dark nook, and Wan takes us into the haunted recesses right along with them.
There may not be a better director than Wan at playing the audience like a finely-tuned instrument. He knows every button to press to illicit the reaction he wants, usually abject terror, but he leans heavily on jump scares more often this time than in times past. Fortunately he doesn't completely abandon the slow ratcheting up of tension, using a variety of approaches to keep audiences on the edge of their seat. Wan repeatedly plays with perspective to keep us as off-balance as his freaked out characters.
It takes a full hour before the Warrens actually arrive in England, and by then the 134-minute runtime is already looking like a bear. Returning screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes pad things out by having the Hodgsons repeatedly make the kind of moronic decisions we expect to see in horrors not directed by Wan. They repeatedly go where it's probably a really dumb idea to go, and even the Warrens aren't immune to doing really idiotic things when it's convenient to the plot. The one constant between Ed and Lorraine is their faith in one another and faith in God. Wilson and Farmiga remain the franchise's greatest strength; their unusual chemistry seemingly works because they don't appear to be the perfect fit. He's a guy who occasionally grabs a guitar and breaks out into a rendition of Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love with You", and she...well, she sees dead people. As the primary victim of the evil spirit's possession, Madison Wolfe captures Janet's confusion, sadness, and emotional fatigue. The only bit of weird casting was Franka Potente (of Run Lola Run and 'Bourne' fame) as one of many who believes the Hodgsons are pulling an elaborate hoax. In reality there were quite a few who felt this way, and the film makes sure just enough of their voice is heard. It's probably wisest not to go in thinking you're going to get the full picture of the real-life case, because the film only works under the belief that demonic spirits who throw furniture and inhabit the bodies of young girls are real. The Conjuring 2 has genuine scares but they don't quite shiver you to the bone the way the last film did.
Rating: 3 out of 5