2013’s the Conjuring was not the first attempt to bring Ed and Lorraine Warren’s adventures to the screen. Catholic ghost hunters and demonologists, Ed was a former cop and Lorraine proclaims to be clairvoyant. Their work began in the early 50s and by the time Ed Warren passed in 2006, they claimed to have investigated over 10,000 cases. the 1991 TV movie the Haunted was based on one case, as was the 2009 Haunting in Connecticut. James Wan brought us 2013’s the Conjuring. An unnerving and powerful thriller following the Warrens as they try and help a family be free of a demonic presence.
It was a surprise hit, and I suspect part of the surprise is that people did not expect it to be both engaging and hopeful. Wan made his name with the first Saw. Saw was a rather bleak film, where people were forced to endure torture to survive and gain a better appreciation of life. While the message was “don’t squander the gift of life”, the series proceeded to fight that very message after Wan moved on. The Conjuring introduced us to Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), a dedicated Christian couple determine to save the Perron family from the demonic.
The Conjuring 2 looks at a couple cases that made the Warrens famous in the 70’s. It begins with their investigation of the house at the center of the Amityville Horror. Their experience while investigating (in which Lorraine wanders the step through the eyes of Ronnie Defeo, Jr, who murdered his family) causes Lorraine to question if maybe they have knocked on the doors of hell once to often, are they pressing their luck? She asks Ed about stopping. Ed is more hesitant, not because he does not love or respect Lorraine, but he is still certain she has her visions for a reason.
Meanwhile, we are also following the Hodgsen family in Enfield North London. Peggy’s husband has walked out, leaving her to care for their four children. 11 year old Janet starts to hear a voice, but then it progress, she awakens in other parts of the house. There is pounding on the walls, things start to move, and most frighteningly, the spirit seems to have started to speak through young Janet. The Warrens are brought in by the Catholic Church to determine of this is a hoax, or a true case of demonic activity.
Unlike many horror entries, the Conjuring Films are not about waiting for people to avoid death. Instead, they focus on the hope and faith of the Warrens to help the families. They want to bring safety and redemption to the Hodgsen family. They find that young Janet is desperate to be believed. She has been abandoned by friends, cut off from her sibling by the time they have arrived. Both Ed and Lorraine connect with Janet by telling her how hard it was when they first saw spirits. One of the first things Ed calls for is bringing the family together (the other kids were not staying in the house with Janet and her mother). Ed buys Elvis records for the kids, because it was something they all loved to listened to before their dad left. When the record player does not work, they all sit in the living room and Ed leads them in a round of of I Can’t Helping Falling in Love…when the children and their mother join in singing, the song becomes more than a simple love song. It becomes a song of dedication to each other. To stand together.
It ends up being greater terror than they could have anticipated, but the Warrens cannot turn away from this family, even when it appears that, just maybe, they are being taken.
Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are engaging as the Warrens. The chemistry is there, and their love and compassion for others pours from the performances. I do not know if the film versions of the Warrens are accurate to the real life Warrens, but I tell you this, I really like the Warrens in these films. But they are not the only performances of note. Madison Wolf is compelling and heartbreaking. Her fear makes you want to do whatever you can to protect this kind hearted child from whatever evil is attacking her. Simon McBurney’s Maurice Grosse starts out seeming like your typical researcher excited by the potential for himself. But you find he is genuinely concerned for Janet and has very personal reasons for wanting to prove the existence of an afterlife.
Wan, along with screen writers Carey and Chad Hayes, have given us a story where everyone is likeable. You do not have characters that you want to see get their comeuppance, because there is not need for that. This is the battle of good versus evil on a higher reality.
Wan shows himself a master at thrills , building tension and delivering startled jumps. People will often complain about Jump Scares, but that is really more because they are often used cheaply. Wan delivers on the promises. Few things are as creepy as a child’s toy playing on it’s own. And there is a sequence that uses that very effectively. Outside of two moments where the Crooked Man is an obvious computer generation, the spirits are creepy and unnerving, providing powerful menace.
Wan and his crew have given us a second very effective story. It is chilling, yet full of hope and even love. The Warrens are a charming couple, the family sympathetic. Good horror is hard to do, good uplifting horror can be near impossible. But the Conjuring 2 pulls it off.