The Conjuring, the 2013 horror film from director James Wan and screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes, is among the most frightening horror films I’ve ever seen. It did such an effective job at giving me the heebies that I won’t watch it again for a while. Not because it’s too scary for me to handle, but because I don’t want to become so familiar with the movie that it’s no longer frightening. I want enough of the film to be lost to my memory over time that the next viewing will still catch me off guard. The Conjuring wasn’t a master class in filmmaking, but Wan and company showed that they could use some pretty well worn haunted house tropes and still scare the bejesus out of a viewer who has seen hundreds of horror films. This year’s sequel…not so much.
Wan and the Hayes brothers returned for The Conjuring 2, with David Leslie Johnson also sharing a writing credit. The real life ghost hunting duo of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) return to help out another family suffering through a haunting.
The Conjuring films would have a viewer believe that they are based on true stories. Well, they’re certainly based on a version of the truth. But the Warrens practiced pseudoscience at best, and fraud at worst. Their most widely known case, that of the haunting at the DeFeo house in Amityville, Long Island, has been known to be a hoax for decades, yet it’s used as an introductory scene in this latest movie. Any investigation the Warrens were a part of should not be regarded with seriousness out here in the real world, but in a horror movie it’s okay to suspend disbelief and pretend that ghosts are real and the Warrens were serious investigators of the supernatural.
The action moves overseas to England for this film, where Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her children are being haunted by the ghost of a former occupant of their house. Bill, as he’s called, is a bit of a shithead. He’s dead but still claims dominion over the house and its occupants, terrorizing the children every chance he gets. The Warrens hear about the case and arrive on scene, ready to purge the house of Bill’s evil spirit, although the case turns out to be more complicated than it first appeared. It also has a connection to the Warrens that, without spoiling things too much, makes little sense. It serves to make the film all about the Warrens and not the Hodgson family. That’s all well and good, as the Warrens are the true protagonists in the Conjuring films, but any threads connecting the haunting in England with the Warrens’ past experiences should be tenuous at best. It’s a rather clumsy effort at elevating the importance of the Warrens in the plot, and ultimately unnecessary.
But that can be overlooked. Wan hasn’t directed a film yet that doesn’t have a fair amount of baloney in it. What can’t be overlooked is the shift in tone in The Conjuring 2 as compared to its predecessor. Wan chose to emphasize spectacle over tension in this film, and while it looks great, much of the fright that defined the first film has been excised. All the scares are fun house trickery, and after Bill reveals himself, he’s just not all that frightening.
Scaring viewers is not the easiest thing to do. Most horror films rely on proven tropes for this reason. There’s a sweet spot between mystery and revelation that this film just misses, almost as if scaring the audience was a secondary consideration to showing the Warrens at work. That doesn’t keep The Conjuring 2 from being a decent film, and one that deserves further entries in the series, just to see more of Wilson’s and Farmiga’s acting. But for forthcoming flicks, I think the filmmakers would be well served to de-emphasize the Warrens and focus more on making the audience squirm.