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The Conjuring 2 Is A Predictably Scary Sequel

Being a committed horror director can be stifling and restrictive, but most of the genre’s modern masters (John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, George A. Romero) found a way to mix it up by dabbling in several subgenres. James Wan has made such a powerful—and profitable—impression with his signature brand of haunted house movie (Insidious, The Conjuring, Insidious: Chapter 2) that he’s been forced to repeat himself to an almost puzzling degree in recent years. With his horror niche becoming so dangerously limiting, it’s no surprise that he branched off to make last year’s Furious 7 and plans to direct Aquaman next.

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Of course, there’s a good reason Wan keeps repeating himself. The Conjuring was significantly more accomplished than his previous films, suggesting that repetition served him well, but The Conjuring 2 suggests it might be time for him to broaden his horror horizons. This is an effective, well-crafted film with all the ingredients you’ve come to expect from Wan—and that’s the problem. Lacking the dramatic impact of its predecessor, The Conjuring 2 gives Wan an opportunity to flex his horror muscles, but since we’ve seen him use these tricks to better effect elsewhere, we’re acutely aware of the diminishing returns.

Familiarity notwithstanding, this is not an altogether shameless retread. For one, Wan has twice the budget he had last time, resulting in the kinds of glossy flourishes (cameras going through closed windows, elaborate camera moves in mundane moments) we’ve come to expect from big spenders like David Fincher and Robert Zemeckis. This isn’t necessarily an improvement—where the first film was minimal and precise, this sequel is overproduced and indulgent—but it is a difference. Another key adjustment is the British setting, which distinguishes this film from its predecessor, even if it ultimately results in a more stodgy, old-fashioned experience.

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As for the actual story being told, not much new ground is broken. During a uniquely unfestive holiday season, paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) assist the Hodgsons, a family living in conditions so despairing they border on the Dickensian. Already struggling with financial difficulties, challenging home repairs, an absent patriarch, and other assorted adversity, they are visited by an unwelcome spirit—who refuses to leave.

To a greater extent than The Conjuring, this sequel relies on big, bold, fantastical flourishes—and a villain that’s a dead ringer for Marilyn Manson—but Wilson and Farmiga keep the proceedings relatively grounded. However, even they can’t fully sell Wan’s surprising detours into sentimentality. Most horror filmmakers use treacly emotion as a deceptive counterpoint to whatever shock’s coming next, but Wan is making a heartfelt stab at maturity, one that ultimately feels like a step in the wrong direction. While it’s a surprising choice, it’s not the kind of risk this problematic (but yes, genuinely scary) sequel required.

The Conjuring 2 opens in theatres on Friday. For a glimpse of James Wan’s latest scare tactics, watch the trailer below.

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