With so many horror movies claiming to be based on a true story, it can be difficult to know for sure which ones are bullshit and which ones actually earn the disclaimer. This applies to all sub-genres, but when it comes to the haunting/paranormal-driven ones, like The Conjuring 2, there's an extra layer of skepticism to face: even if the movie was shot exactly as the incident was described by its witnesses, we don't know if they're lying to begin with! The 1977 case known as the Enfield Poltergeist, which serves as the backdrop for the bulk of the film (which hit Blu-ray this week), has been particularly scrutinized over the years - for every solid piece of evidence (a police officer went on record to report a chair moving on its own across the room), there's proof of a hoax (the girls admitted to faking some "incidents"). Obviously, being a major horror movie - and a sequel to one of the biggest horror hits in ages - we know that the movie will fall on the side of "it really happened", allowing Wan to do what he does best: scare the crap out of audiences.
In a fun reversal from the first movie, which kicked off with Annabelle in a prologue and then later gave the doll her very own spinoff, this one starts off with Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, the only returning cast members) having a seance in the Amityville house - a subject that certainly doesn't need Hollywood to explore it anymore. As I said, it can be hard to tell what's actually based on reality in these things, but everyone knows some spooky things occurred at 112 Ocean Ave, and even a quick check will reveal that the Warrens did in fact get involved with that case, making it easier to buy into the rest of the movie's (not Amityville-related) narrative. Not long after we catch up with our returning heroes, we meet the Hodgsons, a family of five (mom and four kids; dad took off a while ago) who live in London and are dealing with money troubles and some schoolyard bullying, making the sudden presence of a ghost just another headache for them. Their experience mirrors that of any number of other haunted movie families - at first things are rather benign and subtle, but eventually furniture is forcefully moving on its own, people are getting thrown into walls, and one of the children (Janet, the obligatory "target" child) is suddenly speaking with the voice of a very angry old man. Time to call in the Warrens!
Well, eventually. The Conjuring films are unique in that they have two main focuses - the Warrens, and the family that's being haunted. In Poltergeist we don't see what Tangina does at home, or really know much about her at all (this didn't change much even with two sequels), but Wan and his writers opt to treat the Warrens and the Hodgsons as equals, resulting in a slightly bloated (135 minute) runtime that takes its time getting the Warrens involved with the Hodgsons' case - it's almost exactly one hour into the movie before they even HEAR of them, let alone arrive in London and start doing their thing. Since they're just living their normal lives (raising their daughter, going on talk shows, etc.) their early scenes aren't always gracefully edited into the film - it often feels like we're just being reminded that they're around and to sit tight until they arrive at the Hodgsons, like an automated voice interrupting the Muzak to thank you for your patience while you wait on hold. The scenes aren't bad on their own (I quite like that the talk show scene has them battling a skeptic, who actually makes some good points), but I almost wish we just started off with the Hodgsons and saved the Warrens' re-introduction for the end of the first act, as a reveal.
Luckily, the Hodgson scenes up until that point are quite good, introducing the film's new antagonists (including the mega-creepy Crooked Man) and also introducing some other experts, namely Simon McBurney as Maurice Grosse (the lead investigator for the Enfield case) and Franka Potente as Anita Gregory, a skeptic who is quick to debunk every single claim. In real life, the Warrens were only tangentially involved with the Hodgsons, so I'm sure the inclusion of these characters was appreciated by both the real life players in this case and the folks that love to complain when a big budget movie aimed at summer audiences doesn't stick to the exact real life events. It's unfortunate that the movie is too long as it is, as I would have liked to have seen more of this odd little group working together or sparring; there's a great scene in a pub where Grosse and Gregory are going back and forth and the Warrens are actually in the middle, still somewhat on the fence with regards to whether or not anything supernatural is really happening (and, as they're actually working for the Church, they need hard proof in order to do anything anyway). I find scenes like this quite satisfying; I lean a bit more toward skeptical when it comes to these things, so I appreciate seeing that the Warrens (at least, the movie's depiction of them) aren't quick to assume it's a ghost every time. If they have to be convinced, then I find it easier to believe, basically.
Back to the length, it's interesting how many of the scenes I really liked would probably be the ones that would be cut if Warner demanded the film had to come in at under two hours. Since the Warrens care first and foremost about the family (regardless if they're legitimately being haunted), they start bonding - Ed in particular takes a liking to them and starts fixing things around the house and playing Elvis tunes on the guitar to lift their spirits. The idea that these kids might just be lashing out and could use a father figure is nicely underplayed, and the movie thankfully doesn't shy away from the (admitted) tendency for the girls to fake certain "happenings" to strengthen their case (though the movie offers an explanation - the ghost tells Janet he will kill her siblings if she doesn't drive the investigators away by being caught faking something). I also enjoyed how much the Warrens genuinely love each other, not something you often see in a horror movie as couples are usually torn apart by the film's events, or estranged to start and needing vampires or whatever to reignite their love. Here, they have each others' backs throughout and even make cutesy remarks to each other (the Hodgsons don't have a bed big enough for the both of them to share, which Ed bemoans and Lorraine promises to make it up to him when they get back home). These scenes are wonderful, but are obviously lacking in jump scares and demons, so you can see an exec being quick to suggest they be removed to get that runtime down without losing any of the scare scenes.
And by "scare scenes" I mean the ones that sell tickets by being used in the trailer, like the upside down crosses scene. As I've said in the past, I don't scare easily, so I have no idea how effective the scares are this time (when I saw it theatrically it was at a not very crowded matinee, so that was no help), but I did particularly love the long take where Ed interrogates Janet, speaking in the voice of Bill, the old man who seems to be the one terrorizing them. It's a creepy and somewhat subtle scare scene, as Janet "morphs" into Bill in the background, almost imperceptibly since it happens over like two minutes and it's also blurry (Ed is in focus instead) - I am probably in the minority for wishing the movie had more like that, where I could get unnerved the first time around and then marvel at the filmmaking on the second. That said, there's a scene where Lorraine is convinced a creepy painting of a nun-demon (Ed painted it after seeing it in a dream) is not as two-dimensional as it would appear that works like gangbusters - it's easy to see why this monster is getting its own spinoff movie as Annabelle did before it.
Sadly, there isn't much about that demon on the bonus features, but the five featurettes do cover a lot of ground despite their brevity. One is a standard making-of about the film as a whole, and you can skip it if you wish, since it's largely promotional in nature as opposed to anything someone who has already seen the movie needs to bother with. The others are better, however - one showcases Joe Bishara's score (highlight: seeing a choir sing the Crooked Man's lullaby), and another dives into the production design, worth a look to see how a two-story London house was recreated on a set in Los Angeles. Then there's (yay!) a look at the Crooked Man, whose impossibly long and thin limbs are NOT a CGI creation but the actual arms and legs of actor Javier Botet, a Spanish performer who has appeared on The Strain and in the [Rec] films. I think he's only in two scenes, but they're great, and I was happy to see him (and Botet) get his due with his own bonus feature. Finally, there's a quick look at the real case, including interviews with two of the now adult children. There are full blown documentaries about the real case if you want a complete history, but for those who just like to know that it's not entirely bullshit, it's an enjoyable little piece that includes a sweet reunion with Lorraine Warren (who has been a consultant on both films), who I believe is the only still living investigator depicted in the film.
There are also a few deleted scenes, including a minor scare bit - nothing particularly essential or memorable, but they're more polished than most deleted scenes usually appear, which suggests they were cut late in the process or cleaned up for a potential extended cut. Luckily, the film is long enough so I assume there wasn't much of a discussion of going the usual route and offering an "extended version" to entice more Blu-ray purchases. It's a shame Wan has seemingly quit doing commentaries (he hasn't done one since Saw III), which would make the package even more enticing, but the solid transfer and about an hours' worth of mostly worthwhile supplements make up for it, and there's a code for a digital version for those who watch the movie on their iPad or something. Personally I wouldn't dare watch it without a proper home theater setup, because the sound design is too good to filter through a portable device's built-in speaker, but to each their own.
The Conjuring has a lot in common with The Exorcist (same studio, same real world connection, same unusually strong reviews from the critics), so if it continued the parallel track the sequel could have been a gigantic disaster (or worse for the studio, a flop) - luckily it was neither. I don't think it was quite as good as the first, but as someone who has seen more than my fair share of sequels, I found it refreshing how they doubled down on the more human and dramatic elements rather than the scares or creep-out moments, which would have been the obvious route. I also like that they didn't shy away from the skepticism; the movie obviously comes down on the side of "it happened" but doesn't act as if there isn't a shred of doubt, either. The length hurts some of its momentum, and personally I don't think the Hodgsons are as interesting as the first film's Perron family, but it delivered a lot of the things people loved about the first, and made me hope we get another go-around with the Warrens down the road. Ed's room of artifacts is pretty big, after all - surely there's at least one or two more cases that can serve as the basis for another well-made, admirably "adult" horror film from a major studio. It's not like we're glutted with them.