The first Conjuring movie, in 2013, distinguished itself in a genre full of cardboard characters and predictable jumpscares by approaching horror from a more psychologically incisive perspective than we’re used to seeing. The real-life “ghostbusters” Ed and Lorraine Warren were almost certainly con artists who duped the credulous, but the dramatized depiction of them in The Conjuring did at least make us feel that they believed, via the fantastic pairing of the always marvelous Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as the couple, who were deeply warm and engaging. And the family whose home they were attempting to exorcise of its evil spirits felt genuinely tormented, thanks to excellent and empathetic performances that existed in an artistic realm unlike the cheesy flat one in which most horror flicks live.
So what was the obvious path to take for a sequel? If “less Ed and Lorraine” and “more cheese and cardboard” seems like precisely the last thing to do, then I agree, and I wish that someone had told this to returning director James Wan (Furious 7, Insidious: Chapter 2), also this time a contributing screenwriter. Farmiga (The Judge, Safe House) and Wilson (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Prometheus) were almost the only reason to see the original film, and they barely appear for the first hour of this overlong, two-hours-plus movie, and then it’s mostly to talk about the interesting stuff happening in their lives that Wan, bizarrely, chooses not to dramatize. The film opens with the Warrens in the midst of investigating the so-called Amityville horror case in early 1976 — the most famous of the “hauntings” the couple were involved with — when something scares Lorraine so badly that she “lock[s] [her]self away for eight days.” We catch a glimpse of that horror, but how it consumes Lorraine is the sort of thing that the first movie might have focused on; here it is dismissed in one line of dialogue.
“Have you seen how little we’re in the film?” “Right? It’s the only scary thing about it.”
The bulk of this sequel — way too much of the bulky bulk — is taken up with setting up the case that the Warrens will eventually descend upon: the Enfield “haunting” of the same period, in London. In fact, it is the notoriety the Warrens gained as a result of the Amityville case that led to their being brought in on this one. Unlike with the first movie, which at least let us pretend to suspend our disbelief over ghosts and evil spirits, Conjuring 2 almost seems to go out of its way to refuse to let us do that. Isn’t it plausible that lots of salacious news about a haunted house in America inspired some miserable kids in England to fake a poltergeist invasion to get some attention? Of course, Wan depicts the ghostly trouble that besets 11-year-old Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe: Joy, Trumbo) as if it’s authentic, but the director cannot muster up the same level of empathy for his characters — including 14-year-old Margaret (Lauren Esposito) and mom Peggy (Frances O’Connor: Timeline, The Importance of Being Earnest) — this time. We don’t see a family being hounded; we see a struggling single mother and stressed-out kids living in the dingiest house imaginable, and suddenly getting a whole lot more sympathy and comforting than they had before. Even the outright nods to plausible nonsupernatural explanations offered here feel more like the correct explanation than similar feints in the first movie did.
By the time Ed and Lorraine arrive in London — and start looking into what are mostly the same-old horror-flick scares: loud bumps in the night, eerie voices coming out of a little kid’s mouth — it feels like two different movies have been smushed together, and not in any intriguing way. And the movie only gets more confusing and more disjointed when it appears that the particular demon that spooked Lorraine at Amityville has also followed them to London. Or was it already there and drew them in? Either way, we never get a simple rationale for how this is supposed to jibe with what is allegedly bothering the Enfield family (apparently the ghost of a previous occupant of the house).
“Negative entities like to feed off of emotional distress,” Ed “explains” to the Hodgsons. And yet no ghosts or demons made an appearance at my screening of the film, endured by one of the most restless audiences I’ve ever seen a movie with. Perhaps we weren’t distressed enough. If only ghosts were drawn to boredom, we might have been witness to something supernatural. Instead we had only something supernaturally dull up on the screen.