The sequel to the 2013 supernatural hit The Conjuring spirits us off to a place of pure, cold dread: Great Britain in 1977, the funereal era before the economic boom, Princess Diana and Cats.
American paranormal experts Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are brought in to assist a miserable family driven from their ugly suburban London home in Enfield by a poltergeist that assumes different forms. Chief among them is a nasty old man, the sort whom David Letterman used to impersonate yelling, “Get off my lawn!” He seems to have developed an unhealthy attachment to a banged-up leather chair on which he liked to park his carcass until it was, in fact, his carcass. Why won’t he leave?
At a length of 2 hours 13 minutes, this Conjuring doesn’t have the coiled tension of the first, or the despair and clenched desperation of the original’s climactic exorcism. It’s closer in scope and temperament to Poltergeist – more expansive about conjuring up shocks and suspense and, from time to time, just letting the pace slacken so that Ed and Lorraine can talk while everyone breathes in the dank British air and basks in the sunlight that doesn’t exist.
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This is by no means a complaint: Director James Wan pulls off one terrific set piece after another. You’ll squirm or jolt in your seat according to the puppetmaster’s whim.
The film begins with a throwback to the time the Warrens held a séance as part of their investigation into the Amityville Horror, one of the more pleasingly oxymoronic titles in the paranormal lexicon. (The Warrens are based on a real-life married team, and “Enfield” was an actual case – it was previously the subject of a very good British miniseries, The Enfield Haunting, that aired on A&E ).
We experience Lorraine’s perspective – or vision – as she roams upstairs and down into the cellar, where apparently evil likes to dwell along with disused tricycles and holiday decorations. This is all beautifully controlled, as formally composed as a “haunting” scene in an old movie that might turn up on Turner Movie Classics. The shifts of perspective and color heighten our uneasiness, but they also bring out Farmiga’s expression of pale sorrow – she’s a truly haunted soul.
There’s also a stunning, frenetic sequence in which Lorraine is being chased around in her home by a portrait that Ed painted: It was an image he dreamed, and it looks something like a land shark pretended to be a nun.
If anything, Wan gets the most suspense when working with the least sensational material: There’s a quiet, prolonged face-off between one of the girls in the house, the TV remote and that damned chair. Given that setup, it’s hard for anyone to muster a sensible “Satan, get thee behind me.” Most likely you’d smash the remote into the TV and run away. To another country.