When James Wan’s first Conjuring film came out in 2013, I barely slept for a week straight. This is not a movie you want to go home alone to after seeing. What made things worse was that I was home alone for much of it as my family was out of town. I only slept in the living room, with all the lights on and the window blinds down so I couldn’t see whatever may be outside looking in at me. I only slept a few hours a night. I was actually seeing and hearing shit I could not explain. That’s how scarring and terrifying The Conjuring was, it was an immediate horror classic. Wan’s sequel is just as much of a classic, perhaps even more so. It’s back to the living room, lights on and 3 hours of sleep a night for me.
Once again, Wan proves there is still great material to be investigated in the tired trope of a nice white family getting haunted. The Conjuring 2 revolves around another high profile case and true story from the Warren’s files, all the way in England in a small home in Enfield. Single mother Peggy (Frances O’Connor) is under enough stress raising 4 kids by herself, and it only gets worse when Janet (Madison Wolfe) becomes the focus of a malevolent supernatural entity, causing levitation, possession and other unknowable evil. The church calls in Ed and Lorraine (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) to test the legitimacy of their claims.
If you’re going to push a franchise forward, you need leads capable of getting the audience through just about anything. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are those leads. The two sell you on this ideal couple that seemingly have zero marital problems, are always supportive of each other and always agree on everything. They make this fantasy of an unrealistic portrait of marriage born from stilted writing seem human and honest. Madison Wolfe also gives a standout performance, completely throwing herself into some horrifying and physical scenes while retaining a childlike identity.
In the first film, the script made a point that interacting with spirits and doing medium work took a toll on Lorraine. In this film, you really understand what that toll is. In an expertly shot sequence drenched in German expressionism, Lorraine goes through and relives the brutal killing of 5 family members by the Amityville house killer Ronald DeFeo Jr. It’s an appropriately gruesome scene, blending the horrors of the supernatural and the human together. When she snaps out of it, you understand why Lorraine wants to settle down into retirement. This is just one instance of many that she’s lived through.
Wan and cinematographer Don Burgess create a wealth of arresting imagery. Their camera is frequently whirling around rooms and peering around corners. Wan is a manic, inventive filmmaker with his visuals and continues to innovate here. Frequent camera zooms haven’t felt this fresh in some time. There’s always danger lurking in the corners and shadows in Wan and Burgess’s frames. They create an incredible one-take shot when Ed interviews Janet that makes the subtlest changes in the background right underneath the audiences’ noses that is absolutely unsettling once you catch it.
Wan expertly shoots several sequences with a keen sense that an audience is watching this film. He wrings out the tension in buildups to jump scares to levels that would be unbearable if they weren’t so well done, doling out the bang of these scares at the precisely right moment that always catches you off guard even when you’re looking and waiting for it. When Wan does commit to making us jump, it is earned and is never what you’d expect. There are truly scarring images in this film, things I’ve never seen or imagined before – the boy in the Amityville house will haunt my memory for some time. I had chills and was near tears out of pure fear at several points in this film. Wan has created new nightmares to haunt a generation of moviegoers.
One great sequence showcasing Wan’s knowledge of building scares for an audience involves Billy (Benjamin Haigh), the youngest child of the family, going downstairs to get a glass of water. He sips his glass at the sink and looks outside to see a swing in their backyard slightly moving in the night. From there, Wan cuts between two shots that slowly zoom in on their subjects. One is of the swing from Billy’s view, the other a reverse shot from outside with the window that Billy is peering from on one end and another window to its left. You keep scanning between the two windows for something to happen in one of them. There’s no other reason for the second window to be in the shot, right? Wan knows we’re going back and forth and mines so much tension from it.
Another great sequence comes directly afterwards. Billy is about to get back into bed when he hears a toy fire truck down the hall reactivate briefly. Wan follows Billy back and forth as he keeps getting off his bed to look down the hall multiple times. Then it holds on the hall, something is about to happen, right? Billy steps back into frame for one last look, then the camera follows him back to bed. The release refuses to come until we’ve earned it. Wan knows it’s the prospect of danger and horror that is often scarier than the reveal.
The Conjuring 2 is absolutely terrifying, and holds you in its grip for over an incredible 2 hours. It’s a small miracle that Wan had the freedom he did to get a runtime like that. This film is rated R not for any language or sexuality, or even gore, but for simply being too damn terrifying. That is an achievement to be celebrated, and The Conjuring 2 more than earns the rating. You could argue that The Conjuring films are the most successful Christian films, as both are more likely to send me to a bible and prayer than God’s Not Dead or Risen if only out of sheer fear for self preservation.
Wan has now created two undeniable horror classics in his Conjuring films, made another two great horror films in his Insidious films, and proved he could do action and blockbuster filmmaking with the best of them in last year’s Furious 7. Wan can do it all. Wan isn’t just one of our all-time great horror filmmakers, he just might be one of our all-time greats, period.