Making an effective horror movie isn't always about originality. Fear is one of our most conservative emotions — it takes us back to childhood — and so, more often, success in horror is about finding new ways to scare audiences with the same old creaks and bangs in the night.
While I'm a fright fan who celebrates bolder concoctions such as It Follows, I can also appreciate a hackneyed horror flick done relatively right. With equal helpings of fear and corn, The Conjuring 2 fits the bill.
Like the first Conjuring, this one claims to chronicle the exploits of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), who gained celebrity in the 1970s as, essentially, the Catholic Church's version of ghostbusters. The sequel opens with the couple investigating their most famous case, the so-called "Amityville horror." Then we move across the Atlantic to working-class London, where an 11-year-old girl (Madison Wolfe) in a crumbling council house has begun receiving poltergeist visitations.
In real life, the Enfield haunting, as this case was called, attracted a slew of paranormal investigators besides the Warrens. It poses enduring mysteries, too: Was young Janet Hodgson really possessed by the spirit of a former homeowner, or did she and her sister fake the manifestations for attention?
James Wan's film flirts with that ambiguity, but it's safe to say the story he tells here is fiction inspired by the events. Extremely familiar fiction. Children's toys coming alive, furniture moving, a young girl speaking in a demonic growl, bumps and thuds, and even a figure shamelessly stolen from The Babadook — The Conjuring 2 is a compendium of clichés.
This time around, Wan and his three co-screenwriters have made the Warrens and their relationship integral to the action, crafting a subplot in which a demon stalks Lorraine from Amityville to Enfield. While Wilson and Farmiga are both skilled at walking the line between sincerity and camp, their characters' repeated mutual professions of love and faith just heighten the hokeyness level. Wittier writing would have been welcome; Nick and Nora this pair are not.
And yet, despite all these tired elements, The Conjuring 2 might just scare you. Take originality out of the equation, along with gore — which this series eschews — and horror is all about rhythm, timing, casting and production design. Wan has his shooting and editing tricks down to a science: Even when we know what to expect, he catches us off guard. Take the scene where Janet snaps off a staticky TV, and the phantom appears reflected on its dead screen — a mirroring surface that didn't exist an instant ago. Just as clever is a lengthy shot in which a key area of the image remains out of focus, forcing us to imagine what's happening there.
By strategically limiting what we see, Wan wrings genuine suspense out of his predictable plot. Equally important is the casting of Wolfe. She fits the period, and her sullen, skittish Janet is believable as a victim of supernatural activity or as a brilliant preadolescent hoaxer — in short, a more intriguing figure than any of the supporting players in The Conjuring.
A better film might have played at greater length with the possibility of Janet's deception. (As an adult, the real Hodgson did confess to faking "2 percent" of the phenomena.) But Wan and co. are clearly invested in the Warrens' faith in the reality of the demons they claimed to expel. Combined with solid technique, that commitment to old-school scares makes for a fun — if overlong — thrill ride.
Future installments in the Conjuring series seem unlikely to conjure up anything new. But as long as the filmmakers continue to find spooky cases to fictionalize with wild abandon, they should scare up decent box-office numbers.