“The Exorcist,” the most terrifyingly complex movie about demonic possession, runs 122 minutes. So if you’re going to make a film that’s 11 minutes longer, you’ve got to serve up an extraordinary collection of both scares and ideas.
Director James Wan does half of that in “The Conjuring 2,” his sequel to the superior 2013 film (which was 19 minutes shorter). Agitation, he provides. Cogitation, not so much.
Ed and Lorraine Warren (again played by former Charlottean Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) investigate a supposed possession in Enfield, a borough in northern London. Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe), an 11-year-old and one of four kids belonging to a single mom (Frances O’Connor), seems to have been possessed by the spirit of an angry old man who died long ago in the Hodgsons’ house. But the Warrens suspect a demon may be behind the mischief that turns murderous.
The case, which happened in 1977, has never been resolved. (For comparisons between the film and actual events, try historyvshollywood.com.) Wan, who’s also one of four credited writers, decides the malevolent spirit’s ultimate goal is to destroy Ed, which seems odd: Why not possess a victim in Ed’s hometown, as there was no guarantee the Catholic Church would send him to England to investigate?
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The movie fails to answer this and countless other questions. Why would a demonic spirit announce its name, thus allowing someone to control it? If a crucifix makes it writhe and scream, how can it enter a room containing a dozen on every wall? If it can hurl a couch across a room, why not kill Ed by ... hurling a couch across the room and pulping his head? Even horror movies need rules – or explanations of how they can be broken, if that’s possible – but these filmmakers plow ahead without regard for consistency or common sense.
They regularly give us all three types of horror jolts, though: the jump-scares that come from unforeseen shocks, the psychological unease we feel when confronted with a force we cannot understand, and the creepiness that ensues when familiar or beloved objects (a toy, a record player) behave in alien ways.
Wan knows how to sustain tension through terror, though he could have abbreviated the flabby middle of the movie. He’s not as good at sustaining a narrative with emotion or humor, and sentimental scenes with Ed or Lorraine or both seem mawkish. (Even the actors appear to be uncomfortable.)
P.S. “The Exorcist” got a wide release in 1974, one year before the presumed hauntings in “The Amityville Horror” (which gets mentioned here) and three years before Enfield. Priests have cast out supposed demons since Jesus chased a couple into a herd of swine (see Matthew, Chapter 8), but the coincidence of that timing makes “The Conjuring 2” hard to swallow as history – though the movie wants you to accept it as the truth.
‘The Conjuring 2’
☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Madison Wolfe, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor.
Director: James Wan.
Length: 133 minutes.
Rating: R (terror and horror violence).