Back in 2013, James Wan's The Conjuring represented the high point of a wave of mainstream horror that showed there was still value in old-school scares — that there was life beyond torture porn and slick slasher reboots. It was a ghost story–turned-possession thriller that mined terror out of the most basic of elements: a young girl staring in fear at a dark corner of her room, or a children's hide-and-seek-type game gone horribly wrong. In other hands, those scenarios might have remained clichés: How many times have we vowed never to look into that closet again, or not to go down those basement stairs, or to toss out that creepy doll? But Wan found horror in simplicity. And for him, style, atmosphere and emotion weren’t exploitative devices; he invested them with meaning. His camera stalked his characters like an obsessed presence, and he found pathos in the spectacle of a loving mother's transformation into a murderous demon.
It is hard to believe that The Conjuring 2 was made by the same man. The streamlined elements of the first have now given way to mind-numbing clutter. If before Wan stripped down each set piece to its essentials — a roving camera, a patch of darkness, a fearful face, paralyzing silence — now he has thuds and booms and shadows and shaking furniture and screaming characters all competing for our attention. Those once-purposeful, relentless camera moves now just play as meaningless flash, and not even well-executed flash. Wan is coming off the world-conquering success of his wildly entertaining automotive action sequel Furious 7, and he sometimes seems to be trying to bring the splashy cacophony of that movie into a world that thrives on sparseness and focus. It doesn’t work.
The first film had hinted that the next mission taken on by Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), the real-life demonologists whose cases have inspired the series, would be the infamous Amityville haunting. The Conjuring 2 does kick off in that Long Island town, with a messy, violent and not particularly scary sequence of psychic Lorraine inhabiting the memories of a young man who killed his entire family. But it moves on instead to a similar haunting in Enfield, England (also, the filmmakers insist, inspired by real events), where single, impoverished mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four kids are contending with possessed rocking chairs, creaking swings, eerie tents and a zoetrope come to life. I won’t reveal too many details but to say that it appears that the ghost of a creepy old man is lurking about, insisting that the house is his.
Throughout the Hodgson family’s ordeal, Wan cuts repeatedly to the Warrens back in the States. We know they will eventually take on the case, but the film spends a comically long time getting to that inevitable development. Lorraine has had visions of Ed suffering a violent death, and the Warrens, shaken, have sworn off this kind of work. But our devout heroes can’t resist the call of a working-class family in need. When they finally make it to England, they find something of a media circus already developing around the Hodgsons, including a smug, naysaying parapsychologist (Franka Potente) determined to prove it’s all a hoax (boo, hiss, nonbelievers!), and a celebrity paranormal specialist (Simon McBurney) intent on finding life after death for personal reasons.
Horror — or good horror, at least — has to walk a fine line between variation and consistency. Too much of the same type of scare leads to tedium. But too many different kinds of attempts to shock, of the see-what-sticks variety, can also dissipate the mood and defuse tension, two elements critical to the genre. The Conjuring 2 somehow manages to be both repetitive and incoherent. It returns to the same setups over and over again, with diminishing returns. Yet it also throws such a variety of scares at us — moving furniture and faces in the dark and thudding walls and whispering ghosts, often all in the same scene — that the shocks don’t build but rather cancel each other out.
I worried, at first, that Wan was trying too hard, but then I wondered whether he was trying at all. A minor, but telling example: When the story first jumps to England, we get a nauseatingly de rigueur blast of The Clash’s “London Calling,” which suggests that the director has either never seen another film that cuts to the U.K. or has seen too many of them and believes this music cue is an ironclad rule of filmmaking.
Still, there are some strong moments. Wilson brings a corny, credulous confidence to the part of Ed Warren, and a scene where he sings an Elvis song to cheer up the Hodgsons has a goofy, touching charm. But even some of the good stuff — an effectively lean sequence here, a convincing emotion there — mostly remind us of how much better the first film was. If The Conjuring pointed the way toward a simpler, smarter type of studio horror, The Conjuring 2 feels like it has completely lost its way.