My rating above may already have you predicting the rest of this review. You might be thinking, "Great; another middling sequel to its superior predecessor. No need to read any further." In some respects, I would agree with you, but make no mistake, "The Conjuring 2" is still pretty damn scary. Although director James Wan's efforts in the first film were much tighter in terms of character and dramatic build-up, his ability to scare the bejesus out of audiences hasn't dwindled in the slightest. Using his camera as the ultimate tool to strike terror into our hearts, Wan rarely misses a beat here. There is one truly horrifying sequence (which I will touch on soon) that is worth the price of admission alone. Yet for all the successful scares crafted in Wan's fear factory, "The Conjuring 2" suffers from an overly familiar narrative that lessens the impact of the film's technical prowess.
After their involvement in the 1976 Amityville Horror case, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively) have gone on to become media sensations, though some are convinced their investigations are not as paranormal as they say. During a brief career hiatus, the Warrens are called upon to assist the Hodgson family, who have fallen victim to a malevolent poltergeist. To make matters worse, Janet (Madison Wolfe), the youngest daughter and primary target of these hauntings, soon begins showing signs of possession.
Plot-wise, "The Conjuring 2" is more or less a retread of the first film. Like the Perron family before, the Hodgsons are in financial straits, the youngest children are the first to hear everything that goes bump in the night, and one of the family eventually ends up possessed. Even an early tracking shot plays out exactly like one from the first film, following each member of the family through various rooms and hallways to establish the geography of the house. Differences from its predecessor are minor. The mother (played by Frances O'Connor) is divorced, and there isn't a pet dog around to sense the dark presence in the house long before the owners do.
Wan doesn't seem to be bothered by the fact that he's been handed material eerily similar to that of first film. To him, this sequel is another opportunity to use the same haunted house template to scare us in brilliant new ways. Though he can't help but borrow signature tropes from classics like "The Exorcist," such as shaking beds and demonic voices spouting through children's mouths, Wan remains one of the most imaginative minds working in the genre, structuring jump scares so deceptively that even horror fans numb to such antics may find themselves pleasantly surprised by what the film has up its sleeve.
One sequence in particular is so terrifying that, had the film not been plagued by its shortcomings, it might have bumped my rating up by half a star. Without spoiling much, let's just say that a nun, a painting, a tape player and a lamp made for one of the best scenes I have ever experienced in any horror film. It's just a shame that the rest of "The Conjuring 2" didn't really escalate from there. Subsequent scenes are still as frightening as ever, but once they're over, they're immediately forgotten. An old man ominously whistling in a rocking chair? A Jack Skellington-esque figure looming through the hallway? Sure, they'll startle you when you see them, but they will not follow you all the way back to your bedroom at night.
It may not aspire beyond what other good horror flicks have accomplished, but at the same time, it really wouldn't be fair to place "The Conjuring 2" among other subpar sequels. There's simply too much talent going on both in front of and behind the camera for it to qualify as anything below average. Watching Wilson and Farmiga play the hell out of the Warrens is certainly better than watching no-name actors try to work their way through the half-assed horror productions we too often receive. Hearing Joseph Bishara (Wan's secret weapon in all his films since "Insidious") score chilling, choir-heavy music is always an immense thrill. Even if "The Conjuring 2" does not have one discernible reason for us to have a new-found excitement for the genre, it is still an entertaining reminder of why we go see horror films in the first place.