In Enfield, North London, a young girl is repeatedly haunted by a malicious poltergeist. Fearing for her immortal soul, the Catholic Church asks Ed and Lorraine Warren to fly to England to verify the case. When they get there, the pair are faced with an evil unlike anything they’ve encountered.
After his billion-dollar diversion with Fast & Furious 7, it would have been all too easy for James Wan to stay away from horror; to show that there was more to him than an ability to create scary monsters and super creeps. But the man who created the Saw, Insidious and Conjuring franchises doesn’t see horror movies as a ghetto from which to escape. He sees it as home.
When jump scare are done well they can turn a horror film into a wonderful communal experience.
And so, at the first opportunity, he returns to doing what he does best with this sequel to 2014’s surprise smash, The Conjuring. Like that movie, this follows the adventures of real-life ghostbusters, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) as they poke their beaks into a nasty case of demonic possession.
Unlike the first movie, which took place in 1971 in an isolated Rhode Island farmhouse that seemed built specifically to house horrific goings-on, this time the Warrens rock up in the London of 1977. Or, specifically, Enfield, North London, to investigate a poltergeist that seems to have set its sights on Janet Hodgson, a teenager living out a normal life with her mum and siblings in a terraced home. At first the drabness of this house seems antithetical to spooks and scares, but the normality of the environment only accentuates the horror. It’s likely that, if we didn’t grow up in a house just like this one, we had friends who did. It’s all too easy to let your imagination run wild when the events unfolding on screen do so in a location that feels so familiar.
The shift in milieu is also interesting because the end of the first movie hinted heavily that the sequel would focus on the Warrens’ involvement with the Amityville Horror. Indeed, that’s where we first meet them, as the more spiritually gifted Lorraine is immersed in a terrifying vision from which she barely emerges.
However, perhaps because that story has been so well documented as to contain little in the way of surprises, Wan zips beyond that to the Enfield case which, although famous, perhaps isn’t as played out as Amityville. For a while, as with the original, we get two movies running on parallel tracks, flitting between the Hodgsons, as Janet and her mum Peggy (Frances O’Connor, excellent) try desperately to cope with constant spectral invasion; and the Warrens as they recuperate at home, waiting for the calm to turn into a storm. But when the Warrens pitch up in London, the intensity is driven up a notch.
Proof that horror films can be sweet, surprising, and even charming. Even ones with demonic nuns.
While Wan plays fast and loose with the facts of the case, placing Ed and Lorraine at the centre of events here (they didn’t appear at all in last year’s excellent Sky 1 drama, The Enfield Haunting), he also creates an escalating series of superb shocks. Jump scares are often sneered at, and they are often the easy way out: something leaps out from the edge of the frame, accompanied by LOUD NOISES, job’s done. Yet when they’re done well, they can turn a horror film into a wonderful communal experience – as you scream, you’re also laughing because you know that you’ve been had; conned, even, into jumping out of your seat. Very few modern horror filmmakers can time a jump scare as effectively as Wan, and he delivers here, his constantly roving camera finding all kinds of nooks and crannies in which evil can lurk. There are some great ideas – the shot where Janet finds herself in a room filled with crucifixes, only to find them turning slowly upside down is a belter, and it’s often enormous fun, best seen with a crowd. The standout moment, though, comes when Wan bolts his camera to the floor and lets a conversation between Wilson’s Ed and the demon, which calls itself Bill Wilkins, play out in a single shot.
As events unfold, ending in an operatic showdown between the Warrens and the demonic entity, it does get a little hokey (the dull, drab house just happens to have a massive cellar), and clichés aren’t exactly inconspicuous. However, the performances are excellent across the board, while Wilson and Farmiga are tremendous as a married couple utterly devoted to each other. Their relationship is the movie’s emotional anchor, and proves that horror films can be sweet, surprising, and even charming. Even ones with demonic nuns.
With plenty of scares per square inch, this is a worthy follow-up to the original.