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There’s no denying that as far as modern filmmakers go, James Wan is in a class of his own. For over the last 12 years, he’s been the driving force behind numerous great horror films (I’m even a sucker for his criminally underrated Dead Silence), and he even rose to the gargantuan challenge that came with helming last year’s Furious 7. And before he dives into the world of Aquaman, Wan returns to his cinematic roots this summer with a special treat for horror fans: a thrilling sequel to The Conjuring that’s even better than its incredibly well-made predecessor and proves that character-driven genre stories are still the best way to scare the pants off audiences.

Simply put, The Conjuring 2 might very well be the best horror movie we’ve seen from James Wan yet, marking a confident return to horror for the director who has repeatedly changed the genre time and time again throughout his career.

While the majority of The Conjuring 2 is focused on the Enfield case in London, we actually pick up with Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren as they are investigating the infamous Amityville house to help the police figure out what really happened there the night the DeFeo family was brutally murdered. A séance at the murder site leaves Lorraine rattled, forcing her and Ed to take some time away from investigating paranormal phenomena. The couple are quickly brought out of their mini-retirement by the Catholic Church, however, when they learn of a devastating possession occurring across the pond. Never willing to shirk the responsibility of their respective gifts, Ed and Lorraine realize they may be a struggling family’s last hope against an otherworldly presence that is making their lives a living hell.

Upon arriving in Enfield, Lorraine and Ed are taken to the Hodgson house to meet Peggy (Frances O’Connor), a single mother who lives with her four children, Janet (Madison Wolfe), Margaret (Lauren Esposito), Billy (Benjamin Haigh), and Johnny (Patrick McAuley), who are being terrorized by a malevolent force known as “Old Bill.” Sent to determine the authenticity of the Hodgsons’ claims, Lorraine and Ed soon realize just how much danger the Hodgsons are in, and find themselves fighting against an evil force that wants to destroy those they’ve been sent to help.

That may seem like a lot of plot, but honestly, there’s so much more to The Conjuring 2 that I haven’t even touched on, which demonstrates just how well-thought-out and tightly crafted the sequel’s story is. In a little over two hours, Wan manages to tell a horror story brimming with relentless tension and featuring several amazing moments of terror unlike anything we’ve seen from him before. As if that’s not enough, he and co-writers David Johnson, Carey Hayes, and Chad Hayes also manage to create two emotionally-driven love stories; one between Ed and Lorraine and one about the love an embattled family needs in order to endure something as harrowing as the Enfield Poltergeist. That’s no small feat, and somehow Wan makes it all look easy.

Another aspect of The Conjuring 2 that I really enjoyed was how much more time we spend with Lorraine and Ed outside of their investigations; there’s no denying after seeing them in the first Conjuring that Wilson and Farmiga have fantastic chemistry, but the way they come together here is just beautiful to watch. We get a much greater sense of the relationship between their characters in The Conjuring 2 and how deep the devotion truly ran between their real-life counterparts.

Something else interesting about The Conjuring 2 is how the Warrens being called hoax purveyors parallels the scrutiny that Peggy and her children underwent once their ordeal became public knowledge. That similarity convinces the hesitant Lorraine to give up their sabbatical, because no one else might even be willing to help the Hodgsons, meaning the responsibility lies with them and them alone.

Farmiga once again drives the (now) franchise with her impassioned struggles as a woman beginning to feel the true toll of her psychic gift, but for me, the real MVP of The Conjuring 2 is Wilson, who gives a ruggedly poignant performance as a man fiercely driven to protect not only his wife, but this poor family trying to survive against all odds. We got a sense of this passion in the first Conjuring, but in the sequel, the way Wan—as well as Wilson and Farmiga—gives us an even deeper look into Ed and Lorraine’s devotion for both their work and each other is absolutely masterful.

As the matriarch of the Hodgson family, O’Connor (who was great on The Missing TV series) shines in a harrowing role, making us feel Peggy’s palpable anguish as she watches her family get torn apart while her second-oldest daughter becomes a pawn to the whims of an evil entity.

Wolfe, who is tasked with easily the most grueling and emotionally taxing role in The Conjuring 2, is a total revelation and does an outstanding job of holding her own against her more seasoned co-stars. There’s a lovely moment when she’s reunited with her siblings in which Wolfe subtly sheds all that weariness that has clung to Janet ever since the haunting began. That little moment makes you realize that regardless of your opinions on the existence of the paranormal, at the heart of the situation a young girl was feeling hopeless and just wanted nothing more than to be normal again.

As far as the scares in The Conjuring 2 go, I must commend Wan on finding clever and ambitious new ways to play with viewers in the sequel. There are a few unexpected twists that come along with the demonic forces oppressing the Hodgsons, including a ghastly creature that I hope one day becomes its own action figure (it’s THAT cool). I must also tip my hat to Wan for utilizing several old-school methods in the film, when the easy way would have been to go the CGI route. Because this is a story set in the late 1970s, relying on computer-generated creatures would have felt highly anachronistic, so I’m glad Wan kept his approach true to the feeling of that era in filmmaking.

Being someone who enjoyed the first Conjuring but didn’t have quite the affection for it as many others did, I really love what Wan and company have done in The Conjuring 2, as it delivers some first-rate scares and is anchored by an exceptional ensemble and an extraordinarily crafted script. Wan has helmed many great horror movies throughout his career, but for me, The Conjuring 2 is easily the best work we’ve seen from a guy who has done nothing but bring his “A” game to the table as a genre storyteller since 2004.

Movie Score: 4.5/5

Heather Wixson
About the Author - Heather Wixson

After falling in love with the horror genre at a very early age, Heather Wixson has spent the last decade carving out a name for herself in the genre world as a both a journalist and as a proponent of independent horror cinema. Wixson is currently the Managing Editor for DailyDead.com, and was previously a featured writer at DreadCentral.com and TerrorTube.com where her online career began; she’s also been a contributor at FEARnet as well as a panelist for several of their online programs.

Wixson recently finished her first book, Monster Squad: Celebrating the Artists Behind Cinema's Most Memorable Creatures, and is currently working on her second upcoming book project on special effects artists as well.