I love being scared. I also love being surprised. The Conjuring 2 did neither.

Full disclosure: I did jump in my seat two or three times during James Wan’s new sequel to his 2013 horror movie, but that’s bound to happen when manipulative editing and sound design coerces you into a knee-jerk response. These are fleeting scares, and exactly the sort of lazy gimmick the first Conjuring successfully managed to avoid. Where the first movie brought fresh touches to old-school horror, the sequel opts for cheap jump scares and convoluted storytelling.

Once again following real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), the sequel opens with the couple’s visit to the Amityville house, the site of one of their most famous cases. There Lorraine sees a demonic creature who looks like Marilyn Manson in nun cosplay, followed by a vision of her husband’s death. Meanwhile, in London, the Hodgson family begins witnessing paranormal phenomena when their youngest daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe) starts communicating with the belligerent ghost of a 72-year-old man, Bill Wilkins.

Bill is pretty pissed off, and thus a series of ghostly happenings unravel. An empty swing rocks back and forth in the mist, a toy firetruck emerges from a seemingly empty tent, there’s loud knocks at the door, furniture flies across the room. The repetitive and predictable spooks go on for nearly half the movie’s runtime until finally the Warrens are summoned by the Catholic Church to collect evidence for an exorcism.

One of the defining elements of a quality horror movie is its focused attention on the plot; Wan’s sequel, which has four credited screenwriters, feels fractured and overstuffed with disjointed ideas. There’s the Warrens trying to contact the ghost, Lorraine fearing for her husband’s safety, a woman (played by Franka Potente) trying to prove it’s all a hoax, a film crew making a TV special, and a doctor (played by Simon McBurney) who stands around not doing much of anything. Plus there are plenty of upside-down crosses, levitating furniture, and a young girl in a nightgown possessed by demons.

The storyline gets more complicated with the film’s paranormal characters. There’s at least four evil entities in the movie, and barely any connections between them. Why exactly these ghosts or demons or whatever they are continue haunting these people is never clearly explained. I don’t require a movie to give me a ghost’s mission statement, but there’s no rhyme or reason to the movie’s hauntings. First Judy is the only one who sees the main ghost, but then the mom can suddenly see him. First only Judy becomes possessed, but then a dog also gets possessed. But wait! It’s actually a ghost possessing an animated creature possessing a dog possessing Judy. (Huh?) The movie is pulled in so many directions in the final 45 minutes that it’s hard to make sense of what’s actually going on.

The first Conjuring gave us a simple and effective story that pared down horror tropes to their essentials: A witch with a genuinely disturbing origin guiding her wicked motivations against a family. The Conjuring 2 is missing that thematic thread and any sense of rules governing its universe; it’s just evil happening for the sake of evil. It’s also missing the sort of realistic and detailed visuals that Wan brought to the first film. In The Conjuring Wan created a stifled visual atmosphere with muted, dim lighting, shrouding his characters in darkness as if being swallowed by the shadows around them. Here that tingling sense of urgency is nowhere to be found, replaced instead by distracting stylization. There are tons of dutch angles and soaring overhead shots, and the sequel’s high-contrast color palette makes each moment look extra glossy. You know where and when the scares are coming because Wan’s camera lingers far too long over the one shadowy spot where something will pop up. And when those things do pop up they look laughably cartoonish, with bad CG or excessive character makeup.

If The Conjuring is an example of the haunted house movie done right, The Conjuring 2 is an example of everything gone wrong. You can only retread old tropes so many times.


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