Ask any group of people about the Amityville Horror House or the UFO sighting at Roswell, and you will find that these stories of the allegedly supernatural usually revolve around the question of belief; some accepting them for reasons beyond comprehension, and others finding rational reasons to debunk the accounts. Inviting global attention at the hands of the media in the age of growing rationalism that was the late 20th century, most of such recorded accounts were treated to contradicting interpretations from the public, dismissing many cases as cries for attention. It is one such famous story of belief and doubt that James Wan adapts in his sequel to the well-received The Conjuring, inspired by real-life investigations conducted by Ed and Lorraine Warren into the accounts of an English family haunted by what came to be known as the Enfield Poltergeist. Chronicling the tale of demonic possession of a child and its bearings on the press, the society and the Warrens themselves, this sequel carries a story we’ve heard countless times with previously unknown flair and dedication, making it a horrifying experience despite the predictability of its plot.
The Conjuring 2 is inspired by the real story of the Hodgsons, a family of a mother and four children, who claimed to be haunted by paranormal forces in their rented house in 1977. Reports included accounts of furniture being moved around, demonic voices and the children being lifted off the ground, all of which garnered nationwide attention across the United Kingdom, with various experts being called in to test the allegations. Among these were the Warrens, whose story the film primarily follows, as they are sent by the church to obtain evidence before they decide on their potential involvement. The film opens with the couple investigating the haunting at the Amityville House, one of their and America’s most documented paranormal cases, where Lorraine decides to retire from their crusade for some time, fearing for the safety of her husband. Forced back into the game when the Hodgson family at Enfield is threatened and without help, the couple navigate one of their more curious cases which puts their belief in the family’s claims to the test, as they are faced with some of the most questionable evidence they have encountered.
Being a genre resting almost solely on the audience’s indirect experience of the characters’ fear, a cardinal rule for any horror filmmaker is to apply as much care to the human story as to that of the monster or demonic entity, if not more. Simply put, the fear only goes beyond the momentary skip of the heartbeat from a jump-scare if the audience feels connected to the characters and immersed in their story, if they fear for their safety. James Wan understands this, as Conjuring 2 continues the story of the Warrens and the relationship between Ed and Lorraine, which stands out and ahead of the demons and the spirits that haunt the Enfield residence. It is clear that Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga have further embraced their roles, playing organically off each other and displaying far more convincing chemistry than any film of demonic possession in the recent past. Lorraine’s psychic abilities have only intensified with each case, and we as an audience feel every pang felt by her as she is caught in the conflict between saving the lives of the helpless and protecting her own loved ones, without whom she would be all alone again. It was their mutual belief in what most folks refuse to accept that brought the couple together, and it is a sweet story told here, as we understand their individual isolation before they found each other, through the story of Janet, the possessed 10-year old.
One of the reasons I find many films today to fall flat, and not just in this genre, is largely due to the lack of faith of the filmmakers in their story and the lack of heart they put into their production, perhaps from working for the money, despite lack of interest. Wan, on the other hand, is a sucker for stories of the paranormal, therefore handling the material with the care and meticulous mind required to elevate this fairly straightforward haunting to an experience that rings through every nerve in the viewer’s body. In fact, he turned down an enormous amount of money that was offered to him for the 8th film in the Fast and Furious franchise, for carrying forth this series which he truly believes in. And just like the Warrens in the story, he too has a carefully picked team which includes cinematographer Don Burgess (Forrest Gump, Flight), seen doing some of his best work on screen here. What they create together is not just another ghost story, but a serious adaptation of the mysterious events, that along with reactions of the society and analyses by experts, creates a real world around it. The predictability of the overarching plot – partly due to the familiarity of the general public with the real story – is cleverly subverted by the filmmakers who employ unique frames and movements of the camera to sustain the tension and unpredictability within each individual scene. No technique is used twice, and in fact, the film often catches the audience off their guard by going against established expectations of shots, something you will notice in the particularly tense scene involving the boy Billy and his toy train.
All this said, the film does stumble on the drawbacks of its plot, which inserts additional paranormal flesh to this poltergeist haunting, in an attempt to make the case closer to home for the Warrens themselves, which can at times seem overreaching. There is a sense of repetition with the story here, which now draws not only from the real-life accounts of the Enfield case, but also from the investigative methods of the couple which almost mirror the former film. In fact, potentially interesting supporting characters such as the others in their team – who brought different perspectives on the events as they experienced them in The Conjuring – are sidelined here for other experts and neighbours who are seldom shown interacting with the haunting. And without spoiling anything, certain entities and manifestations, which form a substantial part of the haunting, seem lesser developed visually, and at times silly enough in comparison to the demonic nun (as seen in the trailer) that they take you out of the movie.
James Wan’s fascination with real-life accounts of horror proves fruitful yet again, as he rekindles foreboding interest in unanswered questions from the past, and in the process chilling our blood to the marrow. Cleverly recreating the scenes from the Enfield haunting that remain in public record so as to not only make the central characters question their credibility, but also have us believing such doubt, the movie sets a very realistic world around the paranormal events central to its plot. At a time when uninspired films about demonic possession like Poltergeist and Annabelle clutter the genre of horror, The Conjuring 2 has to be appreciated for its near-perfect execution of scares and for centering it around a story of strong human bonds. Breaking new ground in manipulation of horrific imagery, and opening our minds to new sensations of terror, it makes for a very enjoyable watching experience. However, the film also does feel burdened by the overwhelming familiarity of its story which follows convention to the beat, and at a time when the same genre is producing inventive stories like The Witch and 10 Cloverfield Lane every year, it falls just short of genius.