A review of The Conjuring 2 after the jump:
First things first: James Wan hasn't topped the hide and clap sequence in the original The Conjuring. That's the bad news.
The good news is he's made a pretty terrific sequel—one that's in many respects a superior film to the original. And there are times when The Conjuring 2, by displaying a similar command of pace and sustained dread as that instantly legendary sequence, comes close to capturing some of the same lightning in a bottle the first film achieved. Wan is arguably the most gifted of the current crop of great horror filmmakers at crafting stunning individual horror setpieces, and he's given us a few doozies here. I'm particularly in awe of the way he plays with shadow in an early scene in which "demonologist" Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) is haunted by a demon wearing a nun's outfit, and the way his camera constantly twists and pans to reveal something about the offscreen space designed to scare us further. There's once again a wonderful sense of effort and technical skill in every scene, and even when the scares get more elaborate, noisier, and consistently in-your-face (something that is occasionally to their detriment), they still mostly succeed because of it.
This is important, because if Wan isn't scaring you, odds are he's probably boring you. Not all the time, mind you. As in the first movie, there are a few great unexpected laughs, such as when Peggy Hodgson (Frances O'Connor), the women whose family is being haunted this time around, gives Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) a delightfully literal summation of her ex-husband's myriad marital failings. And there's also once again enough charm between Wilson and Farmiga to almost make one overlook the fact that their real-life counterparts were by all accounts odious human beings. But on the whole, the less said about the story, the better. The family is sympathetic and believable, and the actors give fine, convincingly terrified performances in their roles. But it's not enough to give those occasional moments where Wan goes for sentimentality much of an impact.
That's hardly the end of the world. The majority of the time, when Wan seems to be treating The Conjuring franchise as simply a testing ground for all his finely-honed talents, everything works like gangbusters. It's just that in those intermittent scenes, where he tries to hit these other emotional notes, his limitations as a storyteller come into play a bit. Or perhaps it's the limitations of working within the Conjuring formula, which is designed to hit our fear centers from a place of relative narrative safety. This isn't personal horror, and (more than any other genre) the truly great horror films tend to be highly personal in some way. It doesn't leave you flattened after you're done watching it the way It Follows or Goodnight Mommy did last year. And it's almost impossible to form much of an emotional connection when the appeal of this sort of film—in Wan's hands, at least—largely involves little more than a carefully orchestrated series of jolts and bumps in the night.
So if you want to call the Conjuring movies exercises in cheap jump scare theatrics, I can't really argue. All I can say is that I think they're brilliant exercises, staged and executed with a level of consistent excellence you rarely see from these kinds of movies. A traditional (bad) movie of this type has about two different set-ups that it will use again and again. Wan does indulge in these same sorts of jump scares, but he basically never goes for anything that obvious or repetitive. He's patient. He earns the scare, or else he delays it for an even bigger one a few minutes later. And if it's true that, as I suggested above, The Conjuring 2 leans a bit more on exaggerated sound effects/orchestra cues and less novel "boos" than the first film's clapping game or flying laundry, he's still lost none of his ability for timing said moments, or for using prolonged instances of total silence to wrap us around his fingers as we wait for the next terrifying sound or image. It's shameless, but it works. Every darn time.
Also impressive is the degree to which Wan has learned from some of The Conjuring's biggest mistakes—most notably its rather drab final showdown with the demon, which robbed the last act of a great deal of the previous tension the movie had built up. While the initial few hauntings are once again far and away the finest scenes here (as they are in most good haunting movies), this time the conclusion actually does sustain a certain amount of momentum, offering a few more scenes of visual inventiveness and tightly-coiled tension instead of yet another variation on the played-out—and never all that scary to begin with, frankly—exorcism scene. If the film's longer running time does inevitably feel padded in places, its unexpected ferociousness throughout the second half helps buy it a lot of goodwill as it heads into the home stretch.
There isn't much else to add here. At this point, James Wan has mastered the haunted house movie, and those who admire the Conjuring franchise's particular brand of horror—intense but not impactful, frightening but also lots of fun—will likely be impressed by how well it stacks up to the original. As someone who appreciates the genre's stronger, more emotionally substantial offerings as well, I personally think it's still fun to be scared in just such a fashion once in a while. There may not be any real greatness here besides the formal, and part of me thinks it's time for Wan to stretch his creative wings a bit the next time he returns to the horror genre. But he's good at what he does, and sometimes a pleasantly scary time at the movies is all you need. The Conjuring 2 delivers one.