THE CONJURING 2. Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O'Connor, Madison Wolfe, Simon McBurney. Directed by James Wan. 134 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong supernatural themes and violence).
They don’t make them like this anymore. By ‘they’, I mean big Hollywood studios, by ‘them’, I mean ‘horror films’, and by ‘this’, I mean ‘stylish, terrifying, and classic’. Australian ex-pat James Wan, fresh off the billion dollar behemoth ‘Furious 7’, delivers a sequel to his 2013 hit ‘The Conjuring’ that is so expertly crafted that connoisseurs will alternate between terror and awe, as the film breezes past its narrative shortcomings with such élan that it’s hard to begrudge any noticeable flaws.
As with the last entry, the film opens in the 70’s with a different supernatural case investigated by Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga returning in form for another spin), initially unrelated to the film’s A-plot but insidiously reintegrated as the runtime ticks down. This time, spooky doll Annabelle has been replaced by the Amityville hauntings, and Lorraine is treated to a glimpse of a horrifying demonic nun and the premonition of her husband’s gruesome death. As with many haunting or exorcism films, a certain level of Catholic imagery and vernacular is somewhat carelessly tossed about, but certainly no disrespect is ever intended (nor was any received by this reviewer). It is best considered a means to an end.
As Lorraine convinces Ed that they had better withdraw from the paranormal investigation game or risk fulfilling her vision, a poor single mother is having a crisis of her own on the other side of the Atlantic. This is Peggy Hodgson (a thoroughly de-glammed France O’Connor), and alongside her four children she has been victim to steadily escalating goings-on in the night in her home in Enfield, England. Her daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe, convincing) is particularly vulnerable, and when an especially violent episode leads to the local constabulary and media getting involved, their case falls into the laps of the Warrens.
Wan has a clear handle on style and tone from the outset. Every camera move – and there are more than you’ll normally get in a flick, the camera barely pauses for breath – and cut is designed to ratchet up the tension. Jump scares are eked out slowly in the beginning, as Wan lets the pressure mount steadily with few chances for release. Not every tell-tale signifier of a scare, typically scenes that are set at night or when a character is alone, ultimately manifests as one, the resulting uncertainty of which shreds the nerves. Once the Warrens cross the pond on an evidence hunt, acting as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Church, Wan lets loose and everything that follows is likely to leave one tightly balled in one’s seat. With the glut of cheaply produced horror flooding cinemas and home entertainment, it’s rare to witness an original fright – something that is both fresh and shocking. Wan delivers on several occasions (watch for an ingenious use of shallow focus as Ed interrogates a potentially possessed subject). Anyone with a nervous disposition may find themselves unable to pry their fingers from the cinema’s chair leather once the credits roll.
The costumes and sets are gleefully 70’s (who knew Barrymore collars were a compulsory addition to any button-up shirt?), and the role of the aforementioned work of cinematographer Don Burgess cannot be understated, as with that of Joseph Bishara on the score. Admittedly, there are lapses in the story – written by Wan and three co-writers – such as flimsy character motivations, fairly transparent storytelling machinations between the A- and B-plots, and overly neat resolutions, but they’re not the focus here. They are swept away by the sheer splendour of Wan’s vision. And so should most viewers be.
‘The Conjuring 2’ restores elegance to studio horror. Fans of films like ‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Omen’, or the first ‘Conjuring’ will be taken for a satisfactory ride.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out June 9.