Back in 2013, James Wan's The Conjuring represented the high point of a wave of mainstream horror that showed there was still value in old-school scares -- that there was life beyond torture porn and slick slasher reboots. It was a ghost story-turned-possession thriller that found horror in simplicity. Wan stripped down each set piece to its essentials: a roving camera, a patch of darkness, a fearful face, paralyzing silence. His camera stalked his characters like an obsessed presence, and he found pathos in the spectacle of a loving mother's transformation into a murderous demon.
It is hard to believe that The Conjuring 2 was made by the same man. The streamlined elements of the first have now given way to mind-numbing clutter. Wan has thuds and booms and shadows and shaking furniture and screaming characters all competing for our attention. Those once-purposeful, relentless camera moves now just play as meaningless flash. Wan is coming off the world-conquering success of his wildly entertaining Furious Seven, and he sometimes seems to be trying to bring the splashy cacophony of that movie into a world that thrives on sparseness and focus. It doesn't work.
The Conjuring 2 somehow manages to be both repetitive and incoherent. It returns to the same setups over and over again, yet it also throws such a variety of scares at us -- often in the same scene -- that the shocks cancel each other out. Good horror has to walk a fine line between variation and consistency. Too much of the same type of scare leads to tedium. But too many of the see-what-sticks variety can dissipate the mood and defuse tension, two elements critical to the genre.