From a narrative point of view there’s nothing particularly new in “The Conjuring 2.” The sequel to the 2013 hit is basically just another exorcism tale, though one with an English locale; and, of course, it replaces the Catholic priests who ordinarily eject the demons in such fare with the American couple Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) on whose case files the series is based. But since we’re told that they’re acting as agents of the clergy—preliminary investigators, as it were—the Vatican shouldn’t be overly displeased by that.
What sets the film apart, in any event, isn’t so much its content as the packaging. Simply put, this may be a fairly standard exorcism tale, but like its predecessor it’s crafted with such style, and directed with such command of the genre’s conventions, that it stands head and shoulders above the competition. James Wan has a mixed record—some of his movies have been real clunkers. But he hit pay dirt with the original “Conjuring,” and it’s his canny usage of the tropes of the form that makes this entry, like the first, a standout among modern horror flicks.
The story takes place four years after the events of the first film and, as a prologue shows, one after the Warrens’ involvement in the infamous Amityville case. After Lorraine’s vision of a grotesque demon worries her about dangers facing Ed should they continue their work, the couple is asked to go as Church representatives to observe what’s happening in a shabby council house in London, where single mom Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) is trying to keep things together for her four children, though resources are meager and the kids rambunctious. Her troubles escalate when supernatural forces begin to terrorize the family—forces involving the appearance of a ghoulishly menacing old man (Bob Adrian) that center on the younger of Peggy’s two daughters, Janet (Madison Wolfe). Before long the girl is levitating and is periodically possessed by the man’s nefarious spirit, which accompanies its interventions with chaotic house-wrecking.
A British research team, led by owlishly sympathetic Maurice Grosse (Simon McBurney), soon becomes involved—as do a bevy of reporters, and notorious debunker Anita Gregory (Franka Potente). But eventually the family must ask for ecclesiastical help, which leads the church to ask the Warrens to make a preliminary judgment as to whether the events are authentic or a hoax. Naturally their efforts will go far beyond a mere examination of the facts and lead to a full resolution—a final confrontation that involves not merely the old man’s spirit but the demon Lorraine had met back home.
Wan and his collaborators—co-writers Chad Hayes, Carey Hayes and David Johnson, production designer Julie Berghoff, cinematographer Don Burgess, editor Kirk Morri and composer Joseph Bishara, along with the visual effects team headed by Ariel Velasco Shaw—have together fashioned the film cunningly, resulting in a mood of gradually escalating tension, punctuated by effective shock moments, that’s a textbook example of how such familiar material can be revivified. One of the most remarkable aspects of the film is the lack of blood and gore, a welcome rarity in today’s cinema marketplace. Wan works instead with a degree of precision that makes the most of the most commonplace devices; it’s difficult to imagine another contemporary director who could have gotten such mileage out of a toy truck that turns itself on or a zoetrope whose crooked little man turns real (an effect a mite reminiscent of “The Babadook”). The period detail, it can be added, is spot on: it’s hard to recall when David Soul posters were so prominent on walls. Kudos to set decorator Sophie Neudorfer and costume designer Kristen M. Burke.
Of course, a genre piece like this, however well realized it might be visually, can quickly go south if the acting is amateurish. “The Conjuring 2” is blessed with an excellent cast. Wilson and Farmiga manage to bring some genuineness to their relationship, and both O’Connor and Wolfe both energy and pathos to the beleaguered mother and daughter. Secondary roles are well-filled as well, with McBurney particularly effective though Potente seems unable to get beyond a single note. There are also nice turns by Lauren Esposito, Benjamin Haigh and Patrick McAuley as Janet’s frightened but spunky siblings and by Simon Delaney and Maria Doyle Kennedy as the Hodgsons’ supportive neighbors.
“The Conjuring 2” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but thanks to Wan’s skill it demonstrates once again that something as old-fashioned as an “Exorcist” retread can still carry a wallop, and without drowning us in blood—or even pea soup.