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Review: ‘The Conjuring 2’ is horror-ibly good

  • COURTESY WARNER BROS. PICTURES

    Madison Wolfe, top, as Janet Hodgson in the supernatural thriller “The Conjuring 2.”

“The Conjuring 2”

Rated R (2:13)

***

Opens today

“The Conjuring 2” is such a solid horror film, you won’t even think to pick it apart while it’s happening.

Of course, this family should have moved out the moment they realized their house was haunted. Certainly, it makes more sense to sleep together in one spot like a pile of puppies, instead of maintaining separate bedrooms. Hell yes, someone should have thrown that haunted garage sale recliner in a dumpster the moment it started rocking on its own.

James Wan gets a pass on all of the above, because he is a careful director, who understands and respects his audience. Rules are followed, patience is rewarded and the scares are earned in his movies. And most importantly, the family being haunted in “The Conjuring 2” is filled with enough recognizable and subtle details that audience members will start to feel, most terrifyingly, what it’s like to be in their shoes.

It’s too early to call Wan the Steven Spielberg of mainstream horror films, but he’s starting to build that kind of resume. The 39-year-old directed or co-directed the groundbreaking “Saw,” both “Insidious” movies, and the superb and outstanding “The Conjuring.” (He also directed the flawed 2007 ventriloquist dummy film “Dead Silence” — James Wan’s “1941.”)

“The Conjuring 2” is a half step below its predecessor, but it’s still better than any mainstream horror film since “It Follows.” The drama returns “The Conjuring” exorcists Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life paranormal investigators tied to “The Amityville Horror.” The narrative makes brief reference to that case, before relocating to London in 1977, where a new demonic possession has occurred.

Wan and his co-writers take their time fleshing out the Hodgson family, to the point where it’s easy to forget that scares are coming. There’s single mother Peggy (Frances O’Connor) and four children bullied and living near poverty, the nicest of which (Madison Wolfe) gradually becomes overtaken by a demonic presence.

It’s a completely preposterous situation happening on screen, but the narrative still makes perfect sense in its own fictional universe. This family is earnest and loving, but also desperate, frayed and vulnerable. If you were a demon, the Hodgsons are exactly the type of family you might choose to terrorize.

“The Conjuring 2” leans on more computer-generated scare-building than “The Conjuring,” but there is still an emphasis on practical effects. Use of shadows, camera focus and sound design are as important as any creature that appears on screen. And even as things go off-the-rails horrifying, Wan always keeps one foot anchored in the humanity of the situation. The police response, for example, is wisely played for comedy. Bonding between the Hodgsons and Warrens occurs naturally, with time for an impressive (and emotionally lifting) Elvis imitation by actor Patrick Wilson playing Ed.

The look of the film is also perfect, with the urban London attention to detail of a good musical biopic. (“I Started to Cry” by the Bee Gees, one of several deep cuts on the soundtrack, is used to particularly good effect.) Production designer Julie Berghoff deserves special credit, lovingly placing every David Soul poster and upside-down cross, sometimes in the same room.

“The Conjuring 2” feels about 20 minutes too long, with one too many twists. The Warrens’ tween daughter is briefly introduced and then abruptly abandoned, presumably being babysat by the demon already living in the professional ghost hunting family’s stateside home.

But the complaints are small and easy to ignore in “The Conjuring 2.” And the rewards are plentiful. This isn’t just a good horror film. It’s a good film, which just happens to fall in the horror genre.

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