In the London borough of Enfield, single mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her family are tormented by strange and supernatural activity in their house. When it appears that her daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe) has become possessed, the Catholic Church invites American paranormal investigators Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) and Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) to investigate.
The Conjuring 2 brings back the principal cast and crew of 2013 The Conjuring for another horror film based around the real-life self-professed demonologists Lorraine and Ed Warren. In this case the film focuses on the widely publicised “Enfield Poltergeist” of 1977; probably the United Kingdom’s most famous supernatural event. For fans of the original, it is a worthy follow-up. For fans of supernatural horror it provides an excellent set of scares and a wonderfully moody atmosphere, coupled with strong performances by Farmiga, Wilson, O’Connor and the bulk of the supporting cast. The only major problem that looms over it is actually in its marketing: The Conjuring franchise pushes itself aggressively as being ‘based on a true story’, when of course the real-life Warrens were deluded at best and insidious, predatory frauds at worst. The Enfield haunting itself has long since been widely debunked, as has the ‘Amityville horror’ that opens the film (and mercifully does not feature for long). There is a small ethical challenge that comes with watching The Conjuring and its sequels and spin-offs: how comfortable are you that some money from the box office and rental of these motion pictures are going towards a fraud? (Lorraine Warren is, at the time of writing, still alive; Ed died back in 2006.)
Let us assume that, like me, you’re prepared to accept that watching The Conjuring 2 will mean an old woman gets a pile of money she likely does not deserve. Director James Wan has delivered a largely wonderful old-fashioned horror movie with suspense, shocks, and rising dread. It is not the most original of films, but it does exactly what it purports to do, and does so in a slick and efficient manner. The supernatural presences in the film are largely excellent, notably the ghost of an angry, territorial old man who haunts the Hodgson family and particularly a gaunt, spectral nun that terrorises Lorraine throughout the film. Less effective is “the crooked man”, an elongated skeletal figure realised via computer-generated effects. There is an artificiality to the character that prevents it from ever really seeming scary.
Two things that do lift The Conjuring 2 above the pack are its setting and its characters. The 1970s period setting adds a huge amount of texture and depth to the story, particularly given the grimy London background. It also makes everything feel more realistic: in the 21st century we all seem a lot more skeptical about these kinds of things, whereas back 40 years ago there was a genuine public craze for pseudo-scientific study of the paranormal.
In terms of characters, the film benefits enormously from its treatment of the Warrens. They are played as an aggressively devoted and romantic couple, almost to the point of parody, however Farmiga and Wilson’s grounded and thoughtful performances pull it back and make it all feel surprisingly real. They’re among the most likeable protagonists the genre has seen, although sadly that does increase the discomfort over seeing the real Lorraine Warren profit: not only is she being compensated for her life, it’s being effectively venerated at the same time.
The big caveat aside, The Conjuring 2 is a fun, effective horror movie, and further emphasises the franchise generally as one ripe for sequels and spin-offs. The Conjuring 3 is being developed, as are spin-off features for The Nun and The Crooked Man. Who’d have guessed in Hollywood’s current craze for developing shared universes of films that this would be one of the most successful?