What's worse: Being attacked by a ghost, or being attacked by skeptics who don't believe your ghost story? That's the big question behind The Conjuring 2, a sequel to the shockingly profitable hit, which flies husband-and-wife paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren from 1971 New England to 1977 London, where they tangle with the Enfield Poltergeist, a real-life case that's still hotly debated as a fraud. Over a montage of British iconography — Margaret Thatcher; guards in furry hats; punk rockers; and working-class, chain-smoking children — director James Wan blasts The Clash's "London Calling," even though that won't be released for another two years. Maybe Lorraine (Vera Farmiga), a mentalist, psychically predicted it?
Our victims are single mom Peggy Hodgson (Frances O'Connor) and her four kids, broke wretches with accents borrowed from the Cratchits. (Some of the child actors were forced to wear crooked false teeth.) Their row house is in shambles even before the cabinets start shaking. The paint is peeling, the walls are smudged, and the wood floors look rotten and damp. When Peggy confesses that her louse ex-husband kept the previous owner's furniture, an old man named Bill Wilkins who died in a downstairs chair, we aren't surprised. The wake was probably the last time the place got cleaned.
Alas for youngest daughter Janet (a heartbreaking Madison Wolfe), the man's ghost likes to torture her with pranks. At first, it's minor annoyances, like hidden remote controls and locked doors. Quickly, it escalates with Janet delighting newscasters by channeling the dead man's voice. If you read English papers in 1977, Enfield was a major story. A police woman went on record as seeing a chair skid across the floor, and over 30 other witnesses reported being hit with hot-to-the-touch Legos or seeing Janet levitate through her bedroom window. Mostly, however, Janet's possession was dismissed as a hoax, especially when photos of her levitations just looked like an 11-year-old girl jumping off the bed.
Enter the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Farmiga) who fly overseas and spend three-quarters of the film wondering if they should trust their minds — or really, their hearts, as Farmiga's empathetic Lorraine has the kind of watery blue eyes that flood with tears. Wan and his co-screenwriters David Leslie Johnson and Carey and Chad Hayes try to have it both ways. They linger on the scenes of the Warrens' reluctance, but tell us up-front in the first act that Janet's terror is real. We see the dressers fly across the room and the family's petrified faces. We know they aren't lying. So when our "experts" drag their feet, they look like dummies. After all, they literally live above a flea market of horrors assembled from relics of hundreds of past cases including that dreaded doll Annabelle. Why are they giving poor Janet such a hard time? At least Wilson plays Ed Warren like a lovable dolt. When a fellow researcher shows up with a newfangled VHS camera roughly the size of a toaster oven, Ed beams, "It's so small and light!"
The problem with the original Conjuring is it felt like a checklist of horror clichés. Creepy music box? Check. Crab-walking demon woman? Check. Creepy invisible friend? Like, duh. By the time Wan unleashed a flock of killer birds, the only thing I felt like screaming was, "Bingo!" Ditto Conjuring 2. Dear old dead Bill would be plenty — he sure was for the Hodgsons — yet Wan can't resist throwing in everything from a demonic nun to an evil kinetoscope to a shape-shifting dog. It's less a haunted house than a spectral grab bag. But when building suspense, more means less. The best nightmares come from a simple premise like Freddy Krueger's "Don't fall asleep." Audiences like rules — they make us feel sick to our stomachs when characters break them. Here, the scares are so scattered that it's hard to be afraid of anything except the most basic gimmick: a dark hallway and the predictable countdown till something goes, "BOO!"
The Conjuring 2 is more adorable than frightening. The house is cluttered with fabulous retro junk like pin-ups of Starsky and Hutch. The actors wear gleefully tacky '70s sweaters — crazy knits and crocheted sweater vests and argyle cardigans — and the climax is perked up by Farmiga's powder blue trench coat. When she slogs through a basement filled with waist-high water, my heart skipped a beat: Please don't ruin your jacket! At least Wilson and Farmiga are so sincere and nerdy that their fictional marriage feels real. We aren't scared for them, but they're convincingly scared for each other. The jolts almost feel like enduring a horror film within a better drama. The suspense isn't, "How do we slay the ghoul?!" It's, "Gosh, I hope these nice kids survive to their next anniversary."
In reality, the Warrens weren't heroes. They crossed the Atlantic simply to greet the cockney poltergeist, and then flew back home the next day. (According to lead investigator Guy Lyon Playfair, they showed up uninvited.) The ghost, if there was one, stayed. The media frenzy moved on. Janet moved out at 16. Her mother stubbornly stayed at Enfield until she died. The house's next residents fled after two months when the son saw a man walk into his bedroom. Today, Janet, now a soft-spoken 50-year-old, shuns the press. She's not thrilled about seeing her life turned into fiction. During her only TV interview in three decades, she sat under the harsh lights while yet another stranger called her a liar. She didn't flinch. Finally, Janet stuck up for herself in the polite yet earnest voice of a woman who's been through enough. "You wasn't there, love. You don't know. You don't know what I went through or how I feel today. It will always be with me." She tapped her temple with two fingers. "In here." I wish The Conjuring 2 calmed down enough to show us what nightmares still live in Janet's head — her quiet conviction is more chilling than three-dozen spinning crucifixes.