It’s fitting that the opening point-of-view shot of the The Conjuring 2 is looking out the window of 112 Ocean Ave., Amityville, New York. If that address doesn’t register, you probably don’t like horror movies and definitely should not see this one. For everyone else, this visual, the first of many dazzling camera moves throughout the film, sets a distinct mood. Writer/director James Wan loves movies that make us jump, and is paying homage to the era of horror movies he grew up on. He’s clearly had a ball making another cinematic, jerry-rigged haunted house.
It’s set in 1977 (the same year as The Nice Guys, currently out from the same studio) but never references one of the biggest horror films of that year, Exorcist II: The Heretic. Wan can rest assured that he’s made a better sequel than that infamous flop. Anyway, real-life ghost busters Ed and Lorraine Warren are again played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who become famous for their investigation of the Amityville occurrences.
Big-time scary and full of virtuoso filmmaking, The Conjuring 2 is even better and scarier than its predecessor. It’s also long and full of so many frightening set-pieces that it becomes an exhaustive experience.
As in the first film, the characters are engaging but too thinly crafted. The chemistry between Farmiga and Wilson is genuine but you want far more insight into their fascinating characters than the movie is willing to give us. Nevertheless, the performances are strong enough from the large ensemble cast, including the seldom-seen Franka Potente, the star of Run Lola Run and The Bourne Identity. Best of all is Frances O’Conner (so amazing as the mother in A.I. Artificial Intelligence), making the working class anguish her family experiences from a violent poltergeist seem real.
I love Wan’s movies, which utilize old school scares, shudder-inducing sound effects and vivid art direction. His over-praised debut, Saw, and the franchise that followed, are unworthy of their popularity. What came after, however, were Wan’s Dead Silence, the first two (and best) Insidious films and Annabelle (which he produced). All were great. Horror movies can be endurance tests of sickening violence and human depravity but Wan smartly makes his movies exercises in true suspense and tributes to the masters of horror before him. Both Conjuring movies are a bit much but they are fun, if utterly dread-inducing and capable of rattling the most jaded horror movie fan.
One scene that goes over the line is the pre-title sequence, which recreates the DeFeo murders at the Amityville home. While as stylish a set-piece as everything else here, exploiting this horrible true incident again for cheap thrills is questionable. It’s also an unnecessarily violent scene, in a movie that otherwise earns its shocks by being clever instead of explicit.
There are genuinely heartfelt moments sprinkled throughout, which are a welcome relief from the constant spooky stuff. While there are dozens of scenes that either set up or deliver massive scares, there is an actual point to all of this. The moral is clearly vocalized that we should never allow fear to control us. The central ghost, referred to as “Bill Wilkins,” is compared to a school bully. Seeing a small boy stand up to the frightening spirit, the way he would to a kid taking his lunch money, is moving. It’s easy to imagine that, in about a decade, that kid will be wearing a proton pack and kicking ecto-butt for a living.