What makes “The Conjuring 2” one of the year’s best horror movies is that it’s not just a horror movie. When it is, it’s really scary. Writer-director James Wan – the modern maestro who launched this franchise in 2013 – is well-established for capturing the 1970s-style horror aesthetic, and he opens “Conjuring 2” with a tense scene of Lorraine Warren (“Bates Motel’s” Vera Farmiga) flow-walking as a man murders his family in the tradition of “In Cold Blood.” But once we’re suitably on edge, Wan makes this into a movie about love and family, while also peppering in a sense of mystery.
Some have said “Conjuring 2” is too long for a horror flick – clocking in at 2:15 – but it plays well on home video, where you can take an intermission. And scenes that might’ve been cut by a running-time-sensitive studio are essential for making me like and care about the characters. When the record player doesn’t work in the allegedly haunted Hodgson home, Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) delivers a home-brewed Elvis rendition to the delight of the bedraggled Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four kids.
The Hodgson abode needs all the warmth it can get. Although this is an unscientific calculation, I’m sure it ranks first in CPM (creaks per minute) in horror-movie history. You know those old houses that have one creaky board that gives you away? EVERY board in the Hodgson house fits the bill. It’s big and drafty and in disrepair, and it jibes with my preconception a 1977 London home in a poor neighborhood. There’s also a deliciously creepy basement, with the washer and dryer on one side, but the rest empty and shadowy except for pipes and boards of unknown purpose.
Wan can make lived-in domestic settings scary, too, with just a flick of a light switch. The room shared by the girls – Janet (Madison Wolfe), 11, and Margaret (Lauren Esposito), 14 – is plastered with mini-posters of pop stars. But once the lights dim, a viewer wonders if they’re looking at David Cassidy or the demon face from “The Exorcist.”
Meanwhile in America, before Ed and Lorraine have been invited into the Enfield investigation, the Warren house is fairly creaky, too. At one point, Lorraine enters Ed’s study and the hinges howl so long and loudly that I laughed out loud. Showing that he can make just about any setting scary, Wan adds a sinister vibe to one of those long 1970s-style hallways plastered with garish flower wallpaper. The director had created such a sense of unease by this point that when the Warrens’ daughter – with long dark hair, natch – innocently walks into the kitchen for breakfast, I thought she was possessed for a second or two.
Back in London, Janet is indeed the standard “dark-haired girl possessed by a demon” at first blush, but “Conjuring 2” allows for more depth. Although Janet is the proper amount of terrified – she can’t sleep anymore, not even in the nurses’ station at school, where she used to steal a few winks – she also demonstrates cunning. Without prompting from adults, she ties her wrist to her bed to try to stop from being teleported around the house by the demon or poltergeist (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t work).
Learning the exact nature of the evil entity is usually a rote exercise in horror flicks, but here it has a sense of mystery, and it pays off with a twist, which I won’t spoil.
Adding weight to everything about “Conjuring 2” is that it’s based on a true story. The end credits offer no relief from the tension; they actually ratchet it up a notch by playing the real-life recording of the Warrens’ interview with the possessed Janet. Indeed, that voice doesn’t sound like it could naturally come from an 11-year-old girl. It invites a viewer to investigate further, if they dare, the real-life story of the Enfield poltergeist. (Type “Enfield” into Google, and three of the top nine results have to do with the haunting.)
My first post-movie investigation, though, was to see if there will be a “Conjuring 3.” It’s a good news/bad news situation: It looks like there will be one, but Wan will likely hand off the reins to another director. They’ll have big shoes to fill.