Insidious: Chapter 2 is a Strangely Interesting Misstep
Insidious: Chapter 2’s intent seems to be the antithesis of director James Wan’s most recent outing, The Conjuring. In some ways, Insidious: Chapter 2 is even fairly opposite of what the first Insidious goes for. The Conjuring is a full-blown exercise in restraint, maximizing its scares while providing the most minimal visual cues possible. It’s a film practically built on the theatre of the mind, suggesting terrifying images through sound effects and dialogue more than actually showing them. The first Insidious takes a different approach, presenting a fun house style horror film, building its scares on things jumping out and yelling, “Boo!” while still maintaining a relatively tense atmosphere. Insidious: Chapter 2, however, seems to take the kitchen sink approach. It feels like Wan is throwing as many images, ideas, and horror tropes at the screen as he can to see what sticks and the result is a bit of a mixed bag.
I get the feeling Insidious: Chapter 2 is going to lose more fans than it will make and that is almost by design. The story takes place relatively soon after the events of the first film, the Lamberts recovering from their son’s pass with demonic ghosts, and the father/husband, Josh, per the first film’s final moments, is not quite himself. To his wife, Renai, he seems colder and more distant and when paranormal entities begin wreaking havoc once again, he is completely ignorant of anything and everything. The past may be coming back to haunt them even more than anybody imagined and what began as a simple haunting may run far deeper.
Wan crafts this sequel in such a way that the two films together become something of a puzzle box. Chapter 2 is full of references, callbacks, and even some direct lifts from the first Insidious in order to connect the two, and I admire how much Wan clearly respects his audience. He doesn’t constantly reiterate information from the first film or beat home certain ideas, instead relying on the audience to recall everything that came before. It’s something hardly seen anymore in Hollywood sequels, especially ones as intrinsically tied to the original film as this one is, and it allows Wan and his frequent collaborator/screenwriter, Leigh Whannell, to start the film at a gallop, immediately introducing new ideas and concepts. The problem is that unless you are amazingly familiar with the first Insidious, Chapter 2 is nigh impenetrable. I haven’t watched Insidious since last Halloween, but I have seen it a few times; I consider myself a fan of that first film. And yet I still find myself feeling a bit lost as to who certain characters are or why certain information is spoken about as if it’s common knowledge. It’s a little too dense and steeped in its own mythology for its own good, occasionally straining under the weight of its ambition, and it ends up detracting from what is otherwise a cool, if decidedly weird, story.
Wan and Whannell have taken the very simple story of the first film and approached it from the most obscure angle imaginable for Chapter 2. I won’t go into specifics as that would essentially ruin the whole point of the film, but they add twists and eccentricities that give the film a surprisingly playful spirit. They don’t always work and some of the dots don’t quite connect as clearly as I’m sure Wan and Whannell expect them to, but it’s such an oddball way to confront a sequel that I can’t help but grin and respect them for it, at the very least. It’s something different and when given the choice between that and a simple rehash of the first film, I’d take different any day.
The scares do suffer because of the storytelling, however. Wan and Whannell have placed such an emphasis on creating a complex structure that the scares are given less time to develop and what we’re left with is an overabundance of jump scares without any of the atmosphere. I don’t find the first Insidious particularly scary, but I enjoy the way that film builds tension, creating a nervous, anxious energy that primes the audience to watch every corner of the screen, ready for anything to jump around the corner; an energy that Chapter 2 completely lacks. Wan may literally hurl objects at the screen and use the loudest music stings imaginable to elicit jumps, but none of it gives the film a pulse. It’s viscerally and emotionally limp, the horror equivalent of a wet noodle. Of course, it doesn’t help that substantially more time is spent in The Further this time than last, the limbo/afterlife Josh and his son, Dalton, are able to traverse, and just like the first film, this whole section is the worst, most boring part of the film. I’ve already gone on the record about why The Further doesn’t work for me, but suffice it to say that after seeing how capable Wan is at eliciting pure dread and terror by showing absolutely nothing in The Conjuring, the extended use of The Further in Chapter 2 feels like a step back.
The cast is strong throughout. The way Patrick Wilson skews his natural affability into something dark and destructive for Josh is inspired and while Rose Byrne does not have much to do as Renai other than scream and cower in fear, she is good in the role, lending a nice motherly quality to her character. Barbara Hershey is given more screen time here than in the first film and she is wonderful as Lorraine, Josh’s mother. Hershey is no stranger to horror films and she brings a nice air of experience to Lorraine, a woman who is proactive in ridding her family’s life of ghostly hauntings. And, once again, Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson singlehandedly steal the show in their bit parts as Specs and Tucker, the two bumbling paranormal investigators from the first film. On a technical level, the film is fine. But 24 hours later I can already feel it slipping from my memory.
I believe James Wan is one of the best directors working in horror today. He has an eye and an ear for the genre, knowing how to turn the screw just enough to build tension and punctuate it with a perfectly timed scare and I eagerly await his future projects; The Conjuring alone seals that. But Insidious: Chapter 2 feels like it will ultimately amount to one of his minor films. It’s fun and at times delightfully off-the-wall, but it’s more miss than hit, a horror sequel that goes big but falls short.