Horror franchises typically follow a bad guy: Freddy, Jason, Michael, Chucky, Hannibal, Jigsaw. James Wan’s The Conjuring films – two movies in, now officially a franchise – are novel in that they follow two good guys. Whatever you believe about the Ed and Lorraine Warren of real life, whether you think they were frauds or heroes, there’s no denying that The Conjuring’s fictional version of this couple is deeply compelling. Here we have two traveling altruists, putting their own lives on hold in order to help families who are often too poor to move out of the small homes they've purchased or rented, now besieged by ghosts, demons or poltergeists.
The Warrens, themselves, are what works best about this series, and Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are beautifully cast as the empathetic ghostbusters. Wilson’s got an undeniable charm served better here than in almost any other role of his career. In one scene of The Conjuring 2, he cheers up the miserable Hodgson family, afflicted for months by a host of malevolent spirits, by strumming on a guitar and doing a more-than-passable Elvis impersonation to “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” It’s a warm reprieve in the middle of this chilly thriller, and as he smiles over the guitar at the love of his life, all of a sudden it feels like we’d follow this couple anywhere.
If Wilson’s Ed Warren is the charismatic dignitary, Lorraine is the quiet power behind him. Farmiga radiates such unsullied empathy in the role. As she settles into a swingset with Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe), the youngest daughter most plagued by the spooks of Enfield, we see Janet open up for the first time, because here is someone who believes her, who doesn’t think she’s weird. They talk about the supernatural, sure, but they also talk about school, and Janet’s friends, and how it feels to be an outsider. Meanwhile, as Lorraine is doling out free therapy to a middle schooler in desperate need of it, Ed’s puttering around the Enfield house, repairing the washing machine and fixing a leaky faucet. The Warrens are wonderful, and you can't help but love them.
The family in need at the heart of The Conjuring 2 may lack some of the immediate appeal of The Conjuring’s Perrons, but there is a heartbreaking story here. Frances O’Connor is sad and sweet as Peggy Hodgson, whose husband left her and their three children to start a family with a woman down the street. “He took all of the music with him,” she says, and when Ed tells her he knows it can feel that way, she corrects him. Mr. Hodgson literally left with all of the records, leading Ed to pick up the guitar and start crooning to bring music back to the Hodgson household.
Wan and screenwriters Carey and Chad Hayes cleverly take details of the Enfield haunting – including video evidence of Janet faking one of the incidents – and use it to deepen the narrative. Here, Janet allows herself to be caught throwing plates and bending spoons in order to convince the Warrens to leave, because the angry spirit in her ear told her she must. It’s a recurring theme, accusations of fraudulence in the face of supernatural claims, and Ed and Lorraine are confronted with skepticism at every turn, as well. In their own ways and from their own experiences, they comfort Janet with the knowledge that one day, she will meet someone who believes in her, the way Ed and Lorraine believe in each other. It’s a lovely sentiment, one that goes beyond ghost lore into the broader acknowledgement of what we all want: someone to believe us, to accept our weirdness and treat us as something real.
It seems like a no-brainer, right, when making a film based on a true story, to take details from that story and insert them into your script in an organic way. But most modern horror movies take only the smallest thread of history and spin their stories off of it. It would be easy to place the Warrens in present day, to give the Perrons fewer than five children (a nightmare for filming, one imagines) or move the Hodgsons from England to the States. But Wan and the Hayes brothers treat the Warrens’ case files like sacred texts, and a cursory visit to Wikipedia afterward will support much of what we see in these films. It gives the world of The Conjuring depth and authenticity, and makes the scares that much scarier.
Because of course The Conjuring 2 is very, very scary. Wan is a maestro at conducting atmosphere, building tension. There are moments in The Conjuring 2 that are almost unbearable. The film would benefit from a tighter edit; it’s a little lax and sprawling, but on the other hand, those minutes that aren’t spent building or delivering scares are instead used establishing these characters and their history to one another.
The film is beautiful in some scenes, vividly macabre, particularly when we’re dealing with the supernatural, but much of the Enfield street scenes appear dim and faded. It’s an interesting stylistic choice up against the more colorful scenes of the Warrens in their home country, but not necessarily effective. But when we’re looking at the habit-clad demon targeting Lorraine, or the sullen old man rocking in his chair in the corner of the Hodgsons’ living room, suddenly The Conjuring 2 looks vibrant and interesting. And the opening credits are killer, with Goblin-style chanting behind the vintage title cards and images.
Thanks to their long career and immense notoriety, there are many stories left to draw from the well of the Warrens’ case files. Although a thrilling opening nod to Amityville makes that particular haunting an unlikely source for a revisit, we still have the haunting in Connecticut, the Smurl family demon, Union Cemetery’s White Lady ghost and, OH BY THE WAY, a freaking werewolf. (Please, James Wan. Please do not rob us of this opportunity.) After watching Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson battle witches, poltergeists and demons, there's nowhere I wouldn't go with these Warrens.