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'The Conjuring 2' finds a horror classic succumbing to sequelitus

Director James Wan doubles, triples, quadruples down on the scares in a follow-up that isn't very scary.

‘The Conjuring 2’
Director:
James Wan
Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson
Rating:
R
2 (out of 5) Globes

“The Conjuring 2” isn’t a repeat of “The Conjuring 1,” and that’s great — in theory. In theory, sequels should be different, should be ambitious, should maybe even dirty their shoes with some serious world-building. But “The Conjuring” is an exception to a not-quite-rule. The hit 2013 haunted house jaunt was a blissfully stripped down affair — a chance for director James Wan to pare down the ghost movie to creeping pans and off-rhythm “boo”s. It was a jerry-rigged contraption, built to efficiently scrape nerves. In this case, anything more would be less.

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Alas, “The Conjuring 2” has so much more — five times the scares, three times the plot, plus that other sequelitus ailment: a longer running time. There’s a deepening, probably unnecessary mythology about its heroes, Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), based on real-life paranormal investigators, whose grubby hands were involved in many of the era’s most publicized alleged hauntings. It even tries, clumsily, to address the notion that these tall tales of ghosts and demons and poltergeists, with their obscure and byzantine rules of engagement, might be total bull.

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Granted, “2” has a far more well-known real-life case — technically, two of them. The overture sits in on the 1976 Amityville haunting, which helped make the Warrens superstars. Shaken by the grind of battling both the supernatural and mean, jerky skeptics, they’re thinking of throwing in the towel. Then they get pulled back in. Turns out there’s some doings-a-transpiring in Enfield, England, where a low-income family — the Hodgsons, led by a struggling, single mom (Frances O’Connor) — claimed they were being inexplicably terrorized by some spirit, who would bang around the furniture, make loud noises and, sometimes, possess one of the young daughters, played by Madison Wolfe. (Far scarier, honestly: That Wan uses “London Calling” in his montage intro to 1977 England. Not only is it cheesy — a Bond film already did it! — but the song wasn’t released till two years after.)

The veracity of the Enfield haunting is hotly contested; there’s even video proof that at least one outsized attack was staged. It’s understandable that “The Conjuring 2” would side with the Hodgsons/Warrens. Without all the pyrotechnics there wouldn’t be a blockbuster. There’s a more noble m.o., linking the ghostly business to class. The Hodgsons live in a dingy council home, with an errant father who supplies zero financial support, and with Thatcher about to enter office and make their lives worse still. They’re neglected and ignored. Only the Warrens will give them the time of day.

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Actually, that might be offensive: Tying a lack of belief in the supernatural to a lack of care for the downtrodden. But it doesn’t matter: All nuance gets crushed by noise and flash, with Wan doubling, tripling, quadrupling down on the frights. It’s dispiriting (if you will) watching him cram each set piece silly with scares. Rooms get tossed over, the TV channel surfs on its own volition, dogs turn into giant, freaky dolls or something, etc., etc., etc., ad. naus. That it still tries to engage in a real-or-fake debate — with no less than Franka Potente as the resident hissable naysayer — seems silly: Is there any room for doubt when we’re seeing a little girl waking up on the ceiling then dragged through a solid floor?

Now and then Wan keeps things simple, as when a toy fire track suddenly starts cruising around or a zoetrope spins ominously. It’s at these times the refined craftsman of “The Conjuring” pokes his head out, though his two overqualified leads are unfailingly cuddly and ’70s scraggy. But it’s usually a full tilt boogie horrorshow, so busy that little of it lands. Watching it is like suffering through a band’s super-sized follow-up to a modest hit record, where everything is cranked up to 11, where the fear of not delivering results in depressing hubris. Sometimes it really is best to stick to the hits.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter@mattprigge
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