By BRIAN BOHNERT
SENIOR STAFF WRITER
Throughout the last decade, the horror genre has become synonymous with gratuitous gore and fleeting scares, often present where an inventive story is not.
But three years ago, director James Wan changed all that.
Each scene in his haunted house masterpiece “The Conjuring” was an open dare — a challenge for movie goers everywhere to keep their eyes open while both their hearts and minds raced to discover what was really going bump in the night.
With his latest project, a sequel to the 2013 hit, Wan challenges movie goers to not only survive the pulse-pounding horrors of “The Conjuring 2,” but to fall asleep without first feeling the need to binge-watch cartoons.
The opening of “The Conjuring 2” reacquaints us with real-life ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) as they investigate the site of what was arguably their most famous case — “The Amityville Horror” house.
Lorraine is a clairvoyant who uses her psychic ability to see the 1974 massacre through the eyes of convicted killer Ronald DeFeo Jr. After coming face to face with a blasphemous creature hell bent on taking her husband’s life, Lorraine emerges from her vision and demands she and Ed call it quits.
Though, the couple’s services are soon requested across the pond to Enfield, England where a family is being haunted by the malevolent spirit of a 72-year-old man unwilling to let go of his former home.
At the center of the chaos is single mother Peggy Hodgson (Frances O’Connor) and her four children. One of which is 11-year-old Janet (Madison Wolfe), who becomes the primary target of strange happenings that grow more and more aggressive as the film goes on.
The events start small — a tattered rocking chair sways back and forth on its own, a toy firetruck emerges from the darkness of a small tent and rolls into the youngest boy’s bedroom.
Then, all of the sudden, a dresser flies up against a door and Janet is attacked by the elderly spirit who leaves a nasty bite mark on her shoulder.
In one particularly hair-raising sequence, a petrified Janet takes refuge beneath her bed sheets as the rickety wooden floor creaks under the weight of footsteps — forcing our hearts to work overtime as we wait for whatever is inching closer.
What makes Wan such a brilliant filmmaker is his ability to take our scary movie expertise and use it against us.
Taking cues from his work on genre classics like “Saw” and the hauntingly beautiful Hitchcock-esque “Insidious,” he appears to be a kid in a candy store when playing with the physical environment around him.
When an unsuspecting woman turns away from a mirror, we’re trained to expect something sinister to be there when she turns back around. When the camera forces our eyes to slowly pan from one side of a dark room to the other, we know something is going to be waiting for us.
But with Wan, it rarely ever happens when we expect it to.
He has become a master of cinematic timing, extending scenes to the point our hearts are beating almost as loudly as those of the characters on screen.
It’s the anticipation — the instinctive brace for a jolt that carries more of an impact than the actual scare.
Wan also flexes his budding confidence as a “master of horror” by shooting one of the film’s most bone-chilling sequences in broad daylight.
While most horror films of the last few decades have been told through the point-of-view of a lone survivor or “final girl,” the Warrens remain the central protagonists of the “Conjuring” flicks. And it’s Farmiga who shines the brightest.
Where the first “Conjuring” film was a successful introduction to the Warrens as a ghost-fighting unit, the sequel is very much a Lorraine story.
After all, it is her premonition of her beloved husband’s death that thrusts the narrative into its thunderous climax.
For the casual movie goer, Wan’s latest offering is a lesson in slow-burn horror worthy of the $10 ticket price.
For the hardcore horror fan yearning for something more than buckets of blood and cheap jump scares, “The Conjuring 2” is your answer.
Simply put, “The Conjuring 2” is such an unnerving and effective sequel, it will make you check under your bed before going to sleep at night.
Verdict: 4 stars