Horror director James Wan’s latest trick is to morph his “The Conjuring” franchise into a supernatural love story.
Both as a director and as a producer, Wan is mining the rich “true story” vein provided by Lorraine and Ed Warren, those original “Amityville Horror” ghost-busters. After casting formidable actors Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the couple, he and screenwriter Chad Hayes let them show their chops as a committed couple, compassionate people and passionate lovers in “The Conjuring 2.”
And every now and then, they get Farmiga to widen her eyes and scream until she’s out of breath. Because this is a horror movie, after all. And Vera? She sells it. And how.
“The Conjuring 2” has the Warrens a bit rattled, with the psychic Lorraine ready to step back a little. One seance too many, y’understand.
“This is as close to hell as I ever want to get.”
But there’s trouble overseas, in gloomy punk rock era Britain. That’s where the Hodgsons — mother Peggy (Frances O’Connor of “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence”) and the four kids she’s raising by herself in a creepy, creaky rowhouse — are being visited by a presence.
“This is MY HOUSE!” he bellows. Sometimes in his own voice, sometimes in a voice blurted out by middle daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe). A toy firetruck has developed a mind of its own, a magic lantern/music box is providing more magic than anyone counted on.
And Janet, then her siblings, her mother, the neighbors and finally the police constables, all get the message. Something is tossing furniture about and menacing the whole family.
The good Catholic Warrens are sent over by The Church to investigate. There’s already a British scientist/believer (Simon McBurney of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy”) and a skeptic (Franka Potente of “Run Lola Run” and one of the Bourne pictures) on site.
Wan may be decades removed from his “Saw” stardom, but he still lets splashes of morbid wit make their way in — cops, seeing a chair slide around a corner, across the floor and into place at a dinner table, mutter, “Well, there’s nothing we can do about THAT.”
The period detail is perfect, from the worn out furniture in this worn-out working class house to the fashions, posters on the kids’ walls (“Starsky & Hutch,” The Bay City Rollers and Joanna Lumley) and vintage British cars under the muddy-gray skies.
The movie is a vexing, patience-testing two and a quarter hours, and takes a full hour to get the Warrens on a plane to the UK. But the few, well-spaced out scares are real spine-tinglers.
Whatever the real Warrens were — and the word “hoaxers” comes up often in discussions of their “cases” — Wan and his various writers (and in the case of the movie “Annabelle,” another director) are taking the license to make them more credible, more real and more empathetic as screen characters.
Watch Wilson as Ed pick up a guitar and croon a little Elvis to put the Hodgson kids at ease, and try not to be moved. The two leads have the gravitas and sense of play to make these movies watchable. Wilson is making a nice name for himself in films like “Insidious.” And Farmiga (“Bates Motel”) is also finding a nice career second wind in the genre.
You don’t have to believe in the Warrens to believe in Wilson and Farmiga. They never let on that this is anything other than all in a scary day’s work. And that they’re more than happy to leave the ghost busting at the office and go home for a nice cuddle and brandy afterwards.
MPAA Rating:R for terror and horror violence
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Simon McBurney
Credits: Directed by James Wan, script by Chad Hayes . A Warner Brothers/New Line release.
Running time: 2:14