James Wan, the director of “Saw” and “Insidious,” is a horror filmmaker of such screw-tightening skill that even when he makes a good old rattletrap haunted-house potboiler, it’s easy to feel a glimmer of admiration for his talent just beneath your tingling spine. (It’s his talent that makes the creaky conventions scary.) “The Conjuring 2” is set in 1977, two years after the ghostly rumblings that first placed Amityville on the map as the new world capital of paranormal obsession. Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), the real-life supernatural investigators who made their reputations on the Amityville case, are back from Wan’s 2013 smash “The Conjuring,” and this time they’re chasing down the lurid goings-on in a North London council flat that the film basically rolls out as the British version of the Amityville hell house.
In “The Conjuring 2,” Wan doesn’t exactly rewrite the book on how to stage a spectral pulp shocker. Telling the story of Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor), a beleaguered single mother, and her four children, who are being menaced by undead spirits, Wan digs into a standard playbook of spook-show gambits. There are punishingly loud, door-knocker-from-hell poundings on the soundtrack. There’s an old, gray, dead-looking man who looms up just when you’re sure he’s not going to. And then, of course, there’s that timeless old chestnut, demonic possession, a theme a great many moviegoers take deadly seriously, though you’d think that a lavish attempt to replay “The Exorcist” again, 43 years later, might start to seem a little old hat. Wan is banking on the idea that the hat is so old it’s new again — that yesterday’s hurtling furniture and levitating pre-teen girl and croaky electromagnetic devil voice can add up to today’s retro freakout. It can, but only if the audience is willing to revel in Wan’s repertoire of baroque terror and not worry that they’re basically watching a rerun.
“The Conjuring 2” makes it easy to revel, because Wan has a gift that most slam-bang horror directors today do not: a sense of the audience — of their rhythm and pulse, of how to manipulate a moment so that he’s practically controlling your breathing. His specialty is the tracking shot, with the camera whooshing forward, the way it did in “The Shining,” only Wan, in “The Conjuring 2,” sends it rushing through creaky floorboard hallways and cramped bedrooms, which are made to seem much larger because the images are so alive they’re almost vibrating. All that restless movement suggests a force outside the camera, one the rooms themselves can barely contain. The visual energy of Wan’s filmmaking turns a homely 10′ x 12′ back bedroom into an abyss. (If he ever bottoms out as a filmmaker, he’d make a terrific real-estate broker.) Wan is also a wizard of timing, and in “The Conjuring 2,” he toys with the audience by throwing something routinely unsettling at us (like, say, a toy firetruck that starts to move on its own), then letting that omen of menace pass, at which point the movie will simply pause, stopping dead in its tracks. It’s right there, in the middle of that vacuum of quiet, that our anxiety starts to rush in.
In “The Conjuring 2,” Wan also finds room for his favorite ghost-story fetish object, the one that he’s become a master of (especially in his best movie, “Insidious”): the face. The face that’s staring through the window. Staring through the dark. The face that’s coming to get you. Somewhere on his office wall, James Wan must have tacked up a three-by-five card that reads, “All you need to make a hit horror film is one truly godawful face.” In “The Conjuring 2,” he’s got one, and it’s a real rock star of a ghoul. Lorraine Warren first glimpses it in the film’s prologue, set during a séance in the Amityville house: Lorraine’s body — or, rather, her spirit — gets up from the table and wanders through the house, where she sees a premonition of her husband’s death, and then she sees the really scary thing — a nightmare nun, with piercing raccoon eyes sunken into a face that opens into a bloody grimace of death. This she/he demon looks like Marilyn Manson posing for the world’s most blasphemous album cover. It’s more than scary — it’s crazy-creepy. This is not your father’s haunting.
But the rest of the movie sort of is. In London, the ghosts have staked their claim in a home in Enfield, where they zero in on Peggy’s youngest daughter — the toothy, innocent Janet (Madison Wolfe). They tear off her bed covers, turn a wall of crucifixes upside down, and, eventually, start speaking right through her, à la Regan MacNiel. That’s when the Warrens get called in. Since this is the post-Amityville ’70s, the haunting becomes a major London media story. Is it real or is it a hoax? Needless to say, this is not the most suspenseful element of the movie.
Patrick Wilson, in jet-black hair and Elvis sideburns, wearing a plaid tie beneath his sweater vest, and Vera Farminga, all woeful polite concern, seem to be playing the world’s nicest ghost hunters, and there’s a reason for that: The secret weapon of “The Conjuring” and, now, “The Conjuring 2” is that they’re evangelical horror movies. Wilson plays Ed like a homespun televangelist, with Lorraine as his beaming-eyed partner in faith. A major hook of these films, in an era when chain-store cashiers are barely allowed to say “Merry Christmas,” is how explicitly Christian they are. All of this, of course, goes right back to “The Exorcist,” a film in which a 12-year-old girl’s body becomes the battleground in a religious war, and a movie whose most famous line (well, okay, maybe its second most famous line, after “Your mother sucks … etc.”) is “The power of Christ compels you!”
In “The Conjuring 2,” some of this is soft-pedaled and made to seem almost generic. That’s why the characterization of the Warrens winds up being just a little bit bland. Ed wields a keepsake crucifix that hangs on his necklace, but what the film implies, without ever quite coming out and saying it, is that the Warrens’ whole obsession with haunted houses is driven by their faith. And that’s part of what powers the currents of dread and release. On one level, “The Conjuring 2” is just a not-bad megaplex funhouse movie, no more and no less, but on another level it offers its potential fans a helping of reassurance to go along with the fear. If there are ghost demons out there, then God must be out there as well. Audiences, it was long ago proven, will pay to see both.