Horror movies often rely on a certain amount of naïve or foolhardy behavior to keep the plot moving and the tension high. There’s a vicarious thrill in watching a sympathetic protagonist (or a deserving schmuck) walking unawares into here-be-monsters territory. But there has to be a limit to dumb, erratic, or unbelievable behavior. “AHHHH NO WHAT ARE YOU DOING DON’T GO IN THERE AHHHH” is scary fun the first few times it happens in a film. The third or fourth time around, it starts to wear thin, especially when the characters have already been burned several times but still keep sticking their hands into the fire to see whether it’s hot. That’s one of the many problems with The Conjuring 2: no matter how many pants-wetting, throat-clenching, hysterical-weeping-under-the-covers moments the main characters have, they’re still improbably ready to take slow, tense, solitary walks through the darkened rooms of an extremely haunted house, staring into pitch-black corners, just waiting for something to lunge out and grab them.
That willingness to face blithering terror makes sense for paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, returning from 2013’s The Conjuring). They believe God has called them to help the haunted, and Lorraine’s psychic powers don’t always let her choose whether to be involved in spooky stuff. But for single mom Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four kids, who live in a British council house where a malevolent spirit keeps attacking them from every available dark space, the casual approach to nighttime rambles around the house makes no sense. Conjuring 2 tries to keep the audience on edge with horror. It also improbably tries to reset everyone back to normal daily life every few minutes. That’s one of a couple of ways the film keeps working against itself.
Director James Wan (Saw, Insidious, the first Conjuring) and his co-writers started with a real-life story, and the mundane facts they borrow don't fit well with their horror-movie elaborations. From 1977 to 1979, the real Hodgson family reported a series of poltergeist events in their house: moving furniture, spooky voices, an unseen force levitating the children. The claims attracted considerable press attention and got investigators involved, including police, researchers, skeptics, and the real-life Warrens. Wan and the other writers (Carey and Chad Hayes, who wrote the first Conjuring, and David Johnson, who scripted Orphan) keep some of the timeline and many of the historical names, but ramp the haunting up to a murderous degree. In the real-life case, many of the investigators wrote the whole thing off as a hoax, especially after two of the Hodgson children, Janet and Margaret, were discovered faking incidents. In the film, there's no denying the haunting, not after the ghost smashes the children around the house, destroys furniture, and has lengthy, creepy conversations with the investigators.
So the fact that the Warrens and the Hodgsons keep behaving as they did historically — the family still living in the house, the Warrens questioning the veracity of what they've seen — becomes more and more awkward. The Conjuring 2 stretches out to a bloated 134 minutes, as characters keep repeating tone-deaf behavior and unprofitable conversations. Wan and the writers vastly overestimate how interesting it is to watch people deny the evidence of their own eyes, or to act as if nothing is wrong after facing down one snarling apparition after another. After a point, it's impossible to believe either in the Hodgsons' instinct for self-preservation, or the Warrens' expertise with the supernatural. No one who's faced this many monsters should be blasé about following the latest one into a darkened room.
Like the first Conjuring, and Wan's work in general, Conjuring 2 effectively piles on the jump-from-your-seat shocks and the excruciating sequences where tension builds to the breaking point. Wan is fully aware of the ways an impenetrable shadow, a grating noise, or a shuddering score activates the audience's worst imaginings. He's also well-versed in the power of the uncanny, of the excruciating moments when something onscreen slowly, deliberately violates natural law. The film doesn't lack nerve-racking sequences or well-tuned jump scares. But it stitches them all together with a profound lack of character consistency. As 11-year-old Janet Hodgson, Madison Wolfe convincingly projects terror and misery, but everyone else has that weird reset button that leads to unbelievable behavior. When it becomes clear early on that the ghost activity centers around a certain ugly chair where a man died, why doesn't anyone consider getting rid of the chair? A casual early line makes it clear that Peggy doesn't have the money to move her kids out of the house, but wouldn't living under a bridge in the snow be better than living with something invisible and powerful that openly says it loves hearing the children scream in fear? And, how can the Warrens treat the Hodgsons like beloved friends one moment, then like laboratory experiments the next?
Conjuring 2 comes across as too invested in the successful Conjuring formula to stand on its own: once again, Wan and company mix in a distracting secondary story, give each of the kids their own distinct terror moments, and follow them around the house with a moving camera intended to clearly establish the house's geography. Once again, they split focus between the haunting and the Warrens' doting relationship, publicity tours, and desire to get out of the spook biz. But so much of the material outside of the Hodgson case is a deflating distraction. Noble efforts are made to distinguish the various members of the large cast, but even at two hours plus, the story is so overpacked that various things get lost. The Warrens' daughter is barely a person; a pointed sequence comparing ghosts to schoolyard bullies has no payoff; a lengthy sequence where Patrick Wilson sings an Elvis Presley song feels like the world's longest cutscene; the various real-life investigators don't add anything but conflicting, repetitive voices.
And the Warrens themselves are an ongoing narrative problem. They're such distinctive and intriguing characters, but their characters shift radically from scene to scene. Their profound belief in God, and their godly calling, comes and goes erratically as the moment warrants. Even their access to basic things like humor and empathy are inconsistent. At some points, Ed Warren is a ruthless businessman, pushing the demonologist #brand; at others, he's Craig T. Nelson in Poltergeist, desperately fighting a personal battle against the incomprehensible. Wilson sometimes plays him with the weirdly slick, smug affect of an atheist picking up a check for starring in a Left Behind movie, and sometimes with the passion of a true believer. Farmiga is more consistent, especially in sequences that call for paralytic fear, but she's also saddled with character beats that don't entirely fit together.
Hidden somewhere in the murky shadows of The Conjuring 2 is an utterly terrifying 90-minute horror movie that doesn't waste time on repetition, doubts, sidebar stories, or long conversations about whether the characters should really be scared of the scary thing. Every time a character leans unwisely into an impenetrably dark corner, audiences get a glimpse of that better, leaner, more merciless movie. The Conjuring 2 is authentically frightening when it focuses on fright. But the version currently on screens feels self-indulgent and baggy, like a grab bag of ideas that needed more winnowing and a sharper focus on one or two key ideas. Horror-movie characters aren't the only people who sometimes make frustratingly poor decisions.