“The Conjuring 2,” a sequel to the scariest movie of 2013, covers a lot of the same ground — but it wets a lot of the same pants, too, if you know what I mean. Maybe not as thoroughly, but enough. It takes skill to make something interesting out of the same ingredients you used last time, and director James Wan (“Insidious,” “Saw”) has that skill.
Here, Wan and writers Chad and Carey W. Hayes deliver another smooth, confident, meat-and-potatoes horror film based on the files of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, played with surprising tenderness by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. This story could be told with the Warrens as supporting characters, but Wan and the Hayes brothers (plus David Johnson as the fourth credited writer) make them the protagonists, with their relationship at the center. This unexpected bit of depth and loveliness adds a layer that most films of this genre don’t have.
It’s 1977, and an impoverished north London family called the Hodgsons — divorced Peggy (Frances O’Connor) and her four children — suddenly find themselves bedeviled by a malevolent force in the dingy, gray house they’ve lived in for years without incident. This entity does the usual things these entities do (including hiding the remote control — truly devilish), but takes particular interest in 11-year-old Janet (Madison Wolfe), possessing her and speaking through her to say spooky things.
Since we know up front that this is a movie about a supernatural haunting, Wan skips the formalities and gets right to scaring us with unambiguously paranormal events. No “maybe there’s another explanation” or “maybe it’s all in her head.” There’s not even much “it’s definitely real but nobody believes her” wheel-spinning. In almost no time at all, everyone in the Hodgson family (and more) is 110% convinced that something demonic is afoot, leaving Wan free to blast us with it.
And blast us he does. Wan, an expert with the camera, makes frightening use of the story’s familiar haunted-house tropes, taking care to frame each shot so it’s as creepy as possible. The camera moves smoothly; even when it’s handheld, it’s not jittery. Wan knows that what’s not visible in the frame is as important as what is, and he wants us to be able to see his compositions. He is serious about scaring us, and serious about having fun while doing it.
At 133 minutes, the movie is longer than it should be, and doesn’t earn the extra time. It’s half over before the Warrens even get to England, and once they arrive, their daughter back home, seen earlier, is never mentioned again. (Similarly, there’s no story-related need for the Hodgsons to have four children. But they did in real life, so here they are, even if a couple of them have nothing to do.) Good as he is, Wan can’t sustain the tension and chills for such a long runtime, and the sequel’s not quite as scary as the first one.
That being said, if there’s a treasure trove of Warren files just waiting for Wan to turn them into movies, and if those movies can be as consistently unnerving and well-made as these two are … well, the idea is very appealing. And terrifying.
B (2 hrs., 13 min.; )