The phrase “based on a true story” (or the new go-to “inspired by a true story,” a claim that allows your film to be even less true) is used a lot in horror to add some form of verisimilitude to the wholly unbelievable goings-on. People are always more apt to be scared of a movie if they think it really happened. The Conjuring had the built-in bonus of being based on very famous demonologists and ghost-finders Ed and Lorraine Warren. The events onscreen could be looked up and verified, whether you believed them or not. Back for The Conjuring 2, director James Wan shows us not only the Warrens’ most famous case, but the most documented case of haunting and possession in the history of anything. And it’s scary as hell.
Even among Wan’s filmography of scary movies, 2013’s The Conjuring stood out as being exceptionally eerie. It was far more traditionally atmospheric than his other works, but still fresh and frenetic in the way he elicited the scares. Wan has the innate ability to make everyday objects, locations, and childhood games the most terrifying things imaginable. With The Conjuring 2, everything’s a little more warped. The lenses are a little wider and often fish-eyed, reminding one more of his Insidious films than of the first Conjuring. Still, he keeps that air of “realness” and history that was so effective the first time around.
In the same way that the doll Annabelle was used as the secondary story in the first movie, the sequence begins with Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) investigating another very famous case. It’s so famous that I don’t want to give away the surprise, but that event, and the visions Lorraine sees during that encounter, play heavily into the rest of the movie. The case of “The Enfield Poltergeist” in suburban London forms the basis for the main plot, with a single mother named Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four children living in a small house. Eerie things start happening, mainly centering around middle daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe). Some kind of angry specter is at play there, and eventually, the Warrens are called over to England as agents of the Catholic Church to investigate the truthfulness of the family’s claims.
Now, the downside of Wan choosing the most documented case in the history of modern hauntings is that it’s very easy to figure out what’s fictional for the movie and what’s based on actual fact. The upside is, he is able to get the look of every detail as accurate as possible. In the real case, the chief investigators were Maurice Grosse (here played by Simon McBurney) and Anita Gregory (Franka Potente), with the Warrens only coming in for part of the proceedings; in the movie, Grosse and Greggory are relegated to side characters. There was also a very vocal contingent of people at the time in the ’70s all the way up to now who thought the Hodgsons were faking the whole thing, with Gregory being a major proponent of the hoax theory. The Conjuring 2 sides with the claims being real, though I do applaud them for touching on the hoax angle as much as they do.
I think The Conjuring 2 is a good deal sillier than its predecessor, with the Warrens coming off more like folk-singing demon hunters—Ash from Evil Dead in cardigans. There’s an undeniable sense of hokum around these aspects. However, what a horror movie has to do above and beyond anything else is frighten the audience and this movie does that in spades, maybe even besting the first one in terms of genuine scares. Wan is a master—proven time and again—of the art of creating a situation where you know a scare will be coming soon, but you just don’t know from where, and it’s undeniably effective when it happens.
In general, I’m not a huge fan of jump scares, but Wan has always been the exception to the rule. While just yelling “Boo!” at someone can make them jump, and movies have a tendency to do that to get a cheap scream out of the viewer, Wan is able to craft such a sense of dread in building up to the “Boo!” that it feels earned rather than like he’s getting away with something. He also manages to find new and different ways to make the audience jump, and I will always applaud how often he goes for the time-tested tricks of cinema history rather than CGI where possible. He even reuses and improves his own most frightening moment from the first Insidious (the red-faced man moment) in a scare I certainly didn’t see coming.
So, while the story feels a bit more Hollywood, a bit less “real” this time around, the family drama is still right at the center and is quite effective, and there’s just something so satisfying about Farmiga and Wilson as these two roving do-gooders in a movie, mixing the supernatural with the scientific. The ghosts and spirits are extra frightening this time around and the performance by young Wolfe as the possessed girl is nothing short of chilling. For any of its shortcomings, The Conjuring 2 is scarier than the first movie and you can’t ask for more than that. Here’s to a Conjuring 3.
Image: New Line