The Conjuring 2 is a proper old-school sequel. It doesn't retroactively turn The Conjuring into the first movement of a long-form narrative; it doesn't really mention the events of The Conjuring at all, outside of a couple quick visual allusions. It just takes the same heroes, married paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), and sets them loose on another adventure. It's a tactic that used to simply be the way sequels got done, and is somewhat out of fashion these days, but it has its advantages. One of those is that the film doesn't need to try so hard: it can just be a nice little self-contained object that's perfectly enjoyable on its own right, and hopefully it doesn't simply re-create the entire content of the first film over again.

It's in no small part for this exact reason that The Conjuring 2 proves to be such a damned good sequel. It is not, I think, as scary as The Conjuring, and it's certainly not as clean (the screenplay, by Carey Hayes & Chad Hayes & James Wan - also the director - and David Johnson, is indulgent in exactly the ways that happen when a filmmaking team is given all the leeway in the world based on their last success, and so can afford to be undisciplined), but it might actually be better than its predecessor. At least, it tells a richer story that uses its characters to better effect. Also, the fact that word like "story" and "character" can be tossed around blithely in regards to a horror sequel about a poltergeist is by itself enough to demonstrate that there is something awfully special about these Conjuring pictures. They are full of the usual bump 'n jump nonsense of every ghost movie since time immemorial, but they have the audacity to anchor the typical gamut of haunted house clichés in genuinely involving character drama, executed by legitimately talented actors.

You wouldn't necessarily expect that from the start, when the film makes its most dubious choice: we reacquaint ourselves with the Warrens, many years after the end of The Conjuring, as they're investigating the alleged haunting that would catapult them to national prominence. Right at the very start, in fact, there's a shot inside the attic room of a house with a distinctive gambrel roof, and extremely distinctive half-moon windows. Yessir, we're in Amityville, New York, and Wan and company have decided the best opening gesture for their film is to reiterate the stuff and nonsense of The Amityville Horror, a story that has been subject to all the cinematic abuse it can withstand, I should have to think. The flipside is that it doesn't take much at all to be the best treatment of the material that we've seen: Lorraine, attempting to use her psychic powers to determine whether the claim that the house is possessed is bullshit or not, has a vision where she occupies the body of Ronnie DeFeo as he skulks through the house, murdering his parents and siblings with a shotgun. It's entirely unnecessary to put any of this in the film, but since it's here anyway, I'm glad it's so well done: the actual killings are done as violent jump-cuts, with Farmiga staring helpless and horrified as she pantomimes cocking and firing the gun.

The Amityville material does do one thing for the film, though it's probably the most troubling part of the whole production. Compared to the first Conjuring, the sequel is much more "about" the Warrens and their work, and there's a level on which the plot involves them working out their feelings about being prominent experts on ghost hunting and demonology in the face of a skeptical world. Put bluntly, it's hagiography, and the subjects upon which it lavishes praise are a pair of slimy con-artists of the first order. The first movie never grapples so directly with the fact of the Warrens' career that it becomes an issue; the second movie foregrounds this, and puts in multiple scenes - the Amityville prologue among them - that are the next best thing to outright apologetics for the Warrens.

Ah well. Movies aren't journalism, they're movies, and The Conjuring 2 is a really damn good one. In Amityville, Lorraine has a terrifying vision of a demonic nun (Bonnie Aarons), who is all the stuff that Wan finds terrifying: old ladies dressed in black with craggy skin, predatory eyes, and a mouth like a vagina dentata. She also has a vision of Ed dying horribly. These are enough to put her off the ghost-hunting game entirely, to Ed's confused acceptance. Meanwhile, in Enfield, in the north of London, a haunting is warming up: Peggy Hodgson (Frances O'Connor), a recent divorcée with four children, is barely able to keep her family from imploding due to poverty and the shitty, ancient council housing they're obliged to live in. The stress is affecting all her kids, but it's mostly taking its toll on her younger daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe), who is starting to sleepwalk, or something - she keeps waking up at the foot of an old leather easy chair on the floor below the bedrooms - and who has half-seen visions of an angry old man (Bob Adrian). At first, this is all merely one more annoyance in a life of them, but pretty soon furniture is moving on its own, children are levitating, and Janet is speaking in the ragged voice of a male senior citizen. Peggy is encouraged to go to the media with her story, and in no time at all, the Hodgson family haunting has become a huge story, attracting attention from paranormal experts Maurice Grosse (Simon McBurney), who sees here a chance to prove the existence of life after death, and Anita Gregory (Franka Potente), who smells a hoax; the Catholic Church ends up getting involved, but before they're willing to intercede, they want some expert eyes of their own to check things out and verify that this isn't just a publicity stunt. Those experts, naturally, turn out to be the Warrens themselves, over Lorraine's misgivings. They head over the week before Christmas, which turns out to be used exactly right to plug some ironic holiday iconography in without battering us over the head with it.

The appeal of The Conjuring 2, much like the appeal of The Conjuring, lies in having the old tunes played well, not in seeing anything surprising or unexpected. But oh, golly, how well it's played. As a ghost story, it's marvelously well-constructed to produce an increasing sense of distress and unease rather than to actually scare us, though Wan still knows how to place a jump scare particularly well, as the punctuation mark to a long stretched-out moment of nervous waiting. Still, one of the neatest tricks The Conjuring 2 plays is to give us an expanded view, not a contracted one, which makes such jump scares harder. Wan and cinematographer Don Burgess use an awful lot of long takes with the camera sliding back and forth, left and right, around corners and behind doors; it's almost invariably yoked to a character's perspective, but instead of leaving lots of hidey-holes for demons to jump out of, it tends to emphasise contiguous spaces and big rooms. It makes emptiness more terrifying than things jumping out of the dark. And it works enormously well - one of the film's best moments comes when the youngest Hodgson child, Billy (Benjamin Haigh), roles a toy firetruck into the dark space of a tent he has set up in the hallway; we already know that a dark force is going to role the truck back, since we've seen it happen, so Wan and Burgess frame the shot so that we see the end of the hall with the tent and Billy hiding around the corner simultaneously. The tension comes because we know exactly what's going to happen, and it's the uncomfortable duration of it not happening that's nerve-jangling. The whole movie is full of that: gestures that use the fact that we know we're watching a horror movie as a tool against us. It's really quite wonderful.

Still and all, while The Conjuring 2 is a solid ghost story, it's a great story about Ed and Lorraine Warren - the movie characters, at least, if not the real-life charlatans. It's a marital drama, secretly, and a story of people relying on faith - this is the most Catholic horror movie in ages, maybe even since The Exorcist, and as a non-Catholic that might leave me chilly, except the film takes such great care to make religion an irreducible part of the characters' identities and arcs. One does not walk into big summer movies anticipating a moving study of people who are very afraid, but force themselves to do good and be good, since goodness is key to the faith that helps them swallow back that fear, a thoughtful and nuanced take on belief for any movie; one doubly doesn't expect to see this in a film with a "2" in its title and ghosts blowing up light bulbs in its plot description. But it gives a lot for the actors to work with, and Farmiga, in particular, runs with it all the way to the end zone: I already liked her a lot in The Conjuring already, and she's even better here, subtly exploring the doubts and fears and fortitude of her character in a way that would do any film proud, and is downright miraculous for a horror movie.

In truth, the film commits a lot of unnecessary mistakes: it's clearly too long, for one thing, at a generous 134 minutes (22 more than The Conjuring), time not well spent on the Amityville material or the Warrens' appearance on TV chat show, and it takes entirely too much time for the Warrens to get to England, especially given that all the best character material takes place there. The Hodgsons aren't as the Perrons from the last film: Peggy is likable but we don't learn much about her other than "tired-out single mom", and Janet is mostly just the wide-eyed innocent victim. Meanwhile, while big sister Margaret (Lauren Esposito) and Billy get some material to flesh them out, brother Johnny (Patrick McAuley) is a complete non-entity. And the dialogue suggests a bunch of Americans whose sense of the way English people talk and act is, let's be kind and say "unsophisticated". There's also yet another climax that's functionally identical to every other Wan-derived "fight the demon" movie, and they're starting to reach "aerial battles over cities in Marvel films" levels of trite predictability.

Still, there's way more to love than otherwise: the characters, the fun-house quality of the scares, the smart production design and costumes, which build a completely lived-in version of 1977 that never upstages the action (props, as well, to whoever hid foreshadowing detail about the demon into the sets for the Warrens' house - I saw the random letters, I thought they were odd, and then when it was revealed what they spelled out, it was an "a-HA" moment of the best, most shivery kind). It's a fine and empathetic human story that happens to be told in the horror genre, where such stories aren't typically told; that's really cool, and the fact that it's damn good horror movie on top of it just makes it so much the better.

Reviews in this series
The Conjuring (Wan, 2013)
Annabelle (Leonetti, 2014)
The Conjuring 2 (Wan, 2016)
Annabelle: Creation (Sandberg, 2017)
The Nun (Hardy, 2018)