Director: James Wan
Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor, and Madison Wolf
What else can be said about James Wan at this point? The man exploded onto the scene with a game changer of a horror movie in Saw. After a bit of a wallowing period with two movies that didn’t necessarily connect in the way he wanted, he took a breather before coming back hot with Insidious and The Conjuring. He came back so totally with big hits that got into the consciousness of the world. And after dominating the horror genre, he took the leap to the big budget blockbuster field in Fast and Furious 7. After working really hard for the studio system, he needed to take a break and dip back into horror with a sequel to his masterpiece in The Conjuring. Leave it to him to make one of the most immaculately crafted movies the genre has seen in the longest time (minus the original The Conjuring). Even within that low point, those two movies are pretty solid (with Death Sentence being one of his best). He’s on a hell of a run, cementing himself to being one of the best directors working today. So it’s a hell of a feat that he may have made his best movie a horror sequel, another miracle as horror sequels usually don’t stack up.
Along with Wan, Farmiga and Wilson return as the Warrens. The last movie ended with them hinting at the famous Amityville Haunting. Smartly, this movie starts with the Warrens dealing with that house and then moves on. But what they find isn’t done with them, as that haunting worms it’s way into the lives of the Warrens, even when they are called onto help out the family in England. It’s a very smart structure for a movie. Start out with a famous haunting and then use it later on while digging deeper into a deep cut haunting. And this movie digs deep into the situation.
This is a long movie. Longer than I really expected it to be and longer than a horror sequel usually is. But this is not time wasted on self indulgent nonsense. Wan is using it to get us into the lives of the haunted Hodgson family as well as digging even deeper into the Warrens. The running time allows Wan to deal with faith, but not strictly in a religious sense. Faith in general, in your loved ones and in those that need your help. Cause the Amityville Haunting has Farmiga on the ropes, willing to step down from the ghost hunting game. She’s spooked (nailed it) and doesn’t want to risk her loved ones’ lives. But Wilson is the real deal, a man who is driven from his very core to help people out of the spectral shitshows they find themselves in. He has absolute faith and is willing to die to save someone else. The relationship between the Warrens is so special and honest and beautiful, you understand how Wilson can give Farmiga the drive needed to fight on. And with the Hodgsons, it deals with faith in the sense that they are constantly being judged as liars. The main girl is so riddled with fear of the ghost but of also being left to her own devices thanks to the distrust of others, she feels no good outcome is near. But the Warrens deal with disbelief all the time, especially after the Amityville case becomes a hoax to the public. They impart some wisdom on the girl and the family as a whole that the world may look down at you, but the fight is worth it because there will be that one person who believes you that makes it all worth it. Even when the Warrens lose faith in them, they are open enough to be proven wrong which then leads them back to save the day.
Before I go on about the cast, Wan needs to get even more credit than I’ve already given him. The man has proven time and again that he is a director of immense talent, never repeating himself too much. Project to project, minus sequels, you’d be hard pressed to know it was the same guy. This movie is a $40 Million movie, yet it looks like it cost as much as Fast and Furious 7. That’s cause Wan knows how to use a budget to his benefit and craft a movie to it’s highest potential. The movie is mainly set in England, but it splits some time between England and the US. Wan shoots the two places in very distinct ways to let us know where we are, without using title cards or very obvious signifiers. This is set in 1976 but it doesn’t really rub your nose in it with obnoxious styles or lingo of references. The US looks like the original movie, a brighter Earthy tone to it. England looks very grey and dreary, kinda similar to the tone he was going for in Dead Silence. This deep into his career, nobody is better than him at building atmosphere or wringing dread/suspense out of a scene. This isn’t a movie built wall to wall on jump scares, but on slow building scenes of terror. Constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, putting the screws to the audience by playing with expectations. It’s like watching Michael Jordan play ball during the 90s, an absolute master going to work and making it look easy. There’s so many scenes in this movie that just work like gangbusters, more than most directors can craft in their entire careers. There’s nothing in here as iconic as the hid and clap sequence from the first, but the scenes works in spite of that. And just from a visual standpoint, he bests the last movie with some new tricks. There’s one scene that has a super subtle transformation that you might not even notice, but makes the scene so much creepier. And as usual, the monsters in this movie are haunting as shit. They fit a little more into the Insidious kind of look, but they fit in somehow. Probably cause this movie is bigger and weirder than the original. But the demon nun that walks through this movie is just haunting and creepy as shit. And the old man haunting the house isn’t a slouch either. Wan is incredibly respected, but his work with actors isn’t usually the first thing mentioned. But it should, because he always gets good work.
The acting in this movie helps to elevate it above simple haunting story, because we actually like these people. We spend enough time with the Hodgsons to get to know and care about their plight so every scare scene is actually tense. And building upon the Warrens make them the kinds of heroes we can root for. There’s some ambivalence to the hero work, but overall they are heroes through and through. They’re also good people to boot, charming and loving and warm. Horror movies usually don’t give us heroes like this and it is fantastic. Farmiga and Wilson continue the strong work they started in the first one, getting more meaty stuff to work with and nailing it completely. The chemistry they have is killer and the Warrens goodness is radiant. And the new crew is fantastic as well, helping to elevate what could be simple put upon hauntees. O’Connor sells the weariness of the Hodgson mother, poor and divorced and trying to keep the family together even before a ghost comes a knocking. Her love for her kids is palpable and her desperation is sadly real. The kids are great, with all the focus going on Wolf, as she is the one being targeted by the ghost. She seems like a sweet girl just trying to survive school with her friends, trying to seem cool. Also trying to not let her deadbeat dad become too powerful a presence in the house. And then when the haunting starts to happen, her terror is immense and real. Her desperation for it to be over and for her family to be safe is heartbreaking. You can see the toll it is taking. And in the moments when she is taken over by the ghost, her physicality sells the new personality in her. The rest of the supporting cast all gets little moments to shine and helps the movie sell the reality of what’s happening.
This movie is, to me, the rarest of horror sequels that tops the original. It’s a much longer movie, which sounds counterintuitive but works in it’s favor overall. It may appear a bit shaggier than you’d want, but it’s all to a purpose. Building up the characters to make the masterful tension scenes work even better. You can say that the scene of Wilson, in trying to alleviate tension in the house, sings Elvis with a damn good impression is unnecessary. I would disagree. It’s yet another way to get to know the Warrens as decent people without repeating themselves. And the length just allows the movie to be more thematically rich than the original, dealing with faith and divorce. Cause if the haunting is not a supernatural parable about the specter of an absentee father, I’ll eat my shorts. Wan continues to somehow show growth as a director, crafting some all timer tension scenes. The acting is great and the story takes some nifty twists. It’s really such a great package and yet another fantastic horror movie to come out this year. DC films may be in an odd position, but Wan tackling Aquaman is the only real solid after Affleck doing Batman. And if Wan wants to make another one of these as a palate cleanser after Aquaman, we’d all be the richer for it.