Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring 2 (Photo: Warner Bros.)

★★★ (out of four)
STARS Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson

When The Conjuring was released in the summer of 2013, I was one of those who rocked the status quo — that contingent being made up, of course, by those scores of critics and filmgoers who declared that Ohmygodthisisthescariestmovieevermade! — by giving the film a mixed, 2-1/2-star review and writing, “I suppose it’s possible to be shaken to the core by this movie — even if it’s really not much more frightening than, say, The Flintstones Meet Rockula and Frankenstone or Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island — but ultimately, it’s just one more recycled haunted-house yarn, albeit one that’s modestly elevated by James Wan’s relatively restrained direction and a roster of characters who are more levelheaded than the usual gang of idiots who populate films of this nature.”

With an inexcusable 133-minute run time and a promise of more of the same, The Conjuring 2 wasn’t high on my screening priority list — and yet I dug it more than I did the original. Sure, sure, it’s impossible to believe that director-cowriter Wan and his team really mean for viewers to believe all this nonsense is based on fact, and, when all is said and done, it doesn’t deviate in any discernible ways from the usual haunted-house yarns (in fact, parts of this one smack so much of Poltergeist that we almost expect to learn that an Indian burial ground is somehow involved). But it gets so much right that I’m willing to give it a generous thumbs-up in what’s proving to be a particularly dismal movie season (the films featuring the heroic Avengers and the nice guys excepted).

For one thing, stars Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson make a far greater connection as the real-life wife-and-husband team of paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren, here whisked off to England in 1977 to confirm the legitimacy of the haunting of a house occupied by single mom Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four children. Farmiga and Wilson gave solid performances in the original, but they’re even better here, primarily because their characters’ love for, and devotion to, each other not only feels palpable but also plays directly into the narrative in interesting and surprising ways. Another strength is the principal setting of a North London council house, a nice change from the Amityville Lite stateside houses usually seen in contemporary thrillers of this ilk. What’s more, Wan and production designer Julie Berghoff do a splendid job of capturing the dankness and decay of this sort of public housing prevalent at the time (and nice touch with the Starsky & Hutch posters in the two daughters’ shared bedroom).

Madison Wolfe in The Conjuring 2

As for the performers portraying the members of the tormented Hodgson family, it’s 13-year-old Madison Wolfe who makes the strongest impression while tackling the largest role. As Janet, the demure daughter who’s most affected by the supernatural shenanigans, she’s excellent, often recalling the promise of the teenage Natalie Portman. (I assumed Wolfe was a British newcomer; imagine my surprise when I learned I had already seen this American actress in several roles, including those of Bryan Cranston’s oldest daughter in Trumbo and Woody Harrelson’s oldest daughter in True Detective.)

As in the first film, Wan does a fine job of establishing mood, which is good since the creatures are too derivative to manufacture much in the way of genuine terror. One demonic nun looks like a cross between Salem’s Lot‘s vampiric Barlow and that crabby Mother Superior who used to rap your knuckles when you spoke up in class; another monster appears to be a hybrid of Jack Skellington and the Babadook; and an elderly apparition who’s usually found sitting in a comfy chair looks like Bruce Dern enjoying similar repose in The Hateful Eight (well, if you squint really hard, he does). Honestly, the two scariest moments in this picture were doubtless unplanned. The first is the wallpaper seen in the hallway of the Warrens’ home, the sort of beastly pattern beloved during the ’70s. The second fright is when a ghost switches a TV set from an episode of the popular BBC comedy The Goodies (not identified but instantly recognizable to those of us who enjoyed it in our youth abroad) to a speech being delivered by (shudder) Margaret Thatcher. As Colonel Kurtz might mutter, “The horror! The horror!”

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