I don’t think James Wan could have pulled off a better Steven Spielberg this year, and by that I mean directing both a fantastic film that will go down as a classic, and one that didn’t seem to have his entire heart in it. Can you guess which one Insidious: Chapter 2 is? I’ll give you a hint: The Conjuring is the modern classic. After having rooted for Wan as a horror director, to say this sequel to the 2010 horror film Insidious is a disappointment would be an understatement. Everything the predecessor had to offer was entertaining horror that had enough chills to hold its own, nothing more, nothing less.
There are multiple elements that made Insidious an underappreciated fun ride. Most notably Wan’s sense of atmosphere and Joseph Bishara’s quick music queue that would play throughout every scare. When edited together the camera would linger on, let’s say a face in the window, slowly zooming in until the entire audience’s attention is on that single square foot of the frame, leading to that short piece of music blasting through the speakers, cutting the attention of the audience and making them jump. That entire process is about three seconds of a complete film, yet it is memorable. Watching Insidious: Chapter 2, not only is the film devoid of the intelligence that goes into constructing a scare like that, but it lacks in most everything but building the mythology.
Taking place exactly where the first film left off, Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) has come back from another realm after going in to find his son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins). Josh’s wife Renai (Rose Byrne) feels like something is wrong after their paranormal investigator, Elise (Lin Shaye), is found dead almost immediately after the film opens. The audience knows Josh killed her from the last movie, but Renai doesn’t believe it, or Josh’s mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey); at least, not yet anyway.
The film takes no time to breathe as the scares begin within five minutes. The Lambert family moves from their house to Lorraine’s because Elise’s death is now a crime scene and as most horror movies go, it’s always the houses fault, right? Once again, just like The Conjuring, James Wan proves that he can perfectly frame and shoot horror, building up enough suspense to get a good jolt out of you when a scare comes. Except, with this Insidious sequel after the first attempt to scare the audience it gives up and goes for campy thrills as opposed to trying to frighten you. Many suspenseful scenes would start out strong, only to falter and die without any momentum it had gained; and it never came back for me. I became bored of what terror the film had to offer and the audience began laughing rather than screaming.
When a group of horror lovers are laughing at the offbeat scares rather than the comic relief, you know there is a problem. That’s exactly what happened and it’s to writer-costar Leigh Whannell’s detriment. It’s obvious that Whannell isn’t the greatest writer, and while it didn’t show through with Insidious it glows with Part 2. Set aside the fact that you are following two different stories that connect in some way (I’m getting tired of that screenwriting trope), and take the dialogue to examine first. There are moments where I was scratching my head, literally, when characters would speak. Renai is playing a song on the piano and is trying to explain to Josh that he wrote the song for her. He replies with, “That isn’t the song you should worry about,” as if there is another song, except there isn’t. Another scene involves our “ghost hunters” walking through a house to explain quite simply, “This is not a house where many good things have happened.” I believe I wrote that exact same line at one point in my life, possibly in a grade school writing assignment.
Of course when our characters aren’t saying stupid things the plot dwindles too much on trying to bring back an already dead character, creating as I said “two different stories.” The one plotline we don’t care about nearly enough out of the two does go to an interesting Kubrikian hospital which is easily the most chilling scene of the picture. But other than that single scene the film has many clumsy moments, like our two unfunny comic relief characters (Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson) who give some of the most clichéd humorous dialogue and are simply designed to get a character from point A to point B in a scene involving a predictable knife and some dice.
What there is to appreciate about Insidious: Chapter 2 is the mythology building. James Wan had mentioned that this sequel wasn’t just another story, but adding on to the film that he didn’t get to finish two years ago. Watching this I can understand that, it makes sense, especially when the second half of the film comes around. The “afterlife” idea that came with the first film does come back here, but in a much smarter way that has the most interesting moments of the entire film. It begins to bring things full circle as you realize what exactly they are trying to do with this world. Having not seen Insidious for two years, I feel that the proper way to watch this series is back-to-back because of the mirroring, however, you still get a sense of it if you haven’t seen the predecessor in some time, it just might work better.
Both of the leads, Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, are excellent throughout even with their half-handed lines. Wilson especially gives off a creepy performance as he is possessed by something, and keeps transforming as the film progresses. The movie is somewhat of an achievement just by what he does with the character. And Rose Byrne takes it another step as if she never left the set on the final day of principle photography for the first film. The way Wilson and Byrne play off each other creates some emotional payoff, if only there was more to support it. One scene in particular is one to be discussed as it directly, shot for shot, mirrors the most famous scene in The Shining. It’s a hard shot to miss and whether it works as an homage or fails is a topic I’m interested in talking about in the future (I wasn’t a fan of it).
Another horror sequel is added to the list of disappointments, even with what decency it cooks up. This is a series I will definitely revisit when this comes out on video, to play the films straight through and see if that helps my enjoyment of the series. James Wan is one of the most talented horror directors working today, had he been given a better script, this could have worked exponentially. Insidious: Chapter 2 brings up many good ideas to play with, but just can’t separate itself from boring horror when it wants to go a different route. Haunted house movies can be fun, but not when you want to go beyond that and explore the other realm of possibility.
The Good: ideas brought up to advance the world that was introduced in the first film, Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne.
The Bad: subplots that aren’t needed and could have added more to the overall arch of the story.
The Ugly: not scary and awful dialogue writing.