“INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2” (Movie Review)
The challenge involved in making a direct horror sequel like INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 is that it’s harder to mystify and scare both audiences and the characters the second time around. Fortunately, returning director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell have partially changed the source of the terror for CHAPTER 2, though it takes the film a little while to get there.
Although INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 follows up directly from the final scene of its surprise-hit predecessor, that’s not where it starts. The opening scene takes us back to 1986, where we encounter spook-plagued Josh Lambert as a boy (Garrett Ryan). His concerned mother Lorraine (the always welcome Jocelin Donahue, from THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL) calls in parapsychological help that includes Elise Rainier (Lindsay Seim, too obviously dubbed by older-Elise actress Lin Shaye), and odd stuff occurs. Then it’s back to the present day, Lorraine is played by Barbara Hershey and taking Josh (Patrick Wilson), his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) and their kids into her place, Elise is dead and Renai is being questioned about Josh’s possible culpability in that murder.
As those who recall the original’s ending will be aware, it might appear Josh is the culprit, but he’s literally not quite himself. And the Lamberts are still being plagued by other forms of spirit activity, i.e. a piano playing itself, inanimate objects coming to life and strange figures appearing and disappearing in the kids’ rooms. As in the first INSIDIOUS (and this past summer’s THE CONJURING), Wan here demonstrates a proficiency for taking tried-and-true horror elements and elevating them with precise attention to framing and timing, plus the application of composer Joseph Bishara’s string-heavy musical stingers.
The storytelling is a bit more problematic this time, dependent as it is on developing a new mystery now that the particulars of the spirit dimension (a.k.a. “The Further”) are familiar to the principals. With Elise out of the picture, her comic-relief associates Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) return, along with middle-aged psychic Carl (Steve Coulter), to investigate a paranormal trail that leads to a creepy abandoned house and a creepier abandoned hospital. As this subplot progresses, the exposition gets laid on a little thick, along with other forms of audience hand-holding; Carl drops lettered dice to receive answers from the other side, and every close-up of the revealed words must be accompanied by someone saying it out loud, as if to make sure everyone gets it. And late in the movie, after a nicely shivery visual reveal of what was really going on during that prologue, someone actually turns, almost to the camera, and exclaims, “So that’s what that was about!” It becomes a laugh line the scene doesn’t really need, given that Whannell and Sampson provide sufficient amusement elsewhere.
When Wan and Whannell simply allow the visuals to do the talking, as worked so well in the first INSIDIOUS, the sequel generates some of the same shivery tension, and at least one of the memorable spooks from the prior film is cleverly expanded upon here. Yet its strongest moments involve human threats, not ghostly ones, particularly a tense and exciting confrontation between Josh and Carl, which rallies the movie for a third act that efficiently and suspensefully crosscuts between the realms of the living and the dead. The change of emphasis in antagonists works; if INSIDIOUS was Wan and Whannell’s modestly budgeted variation on POLTERGEIST, CHAPTER 2 can be seen as their take on THE SHINING.
The duo’s approach remains economical in CHAPTER 2, eschewing elaborate digital FX for simple lighting tricks and other atmospherics (though John R. Leonetti’s cinematography occasionally looks a little too much like video, even in shots not seen through Specs’ camcorder). Also helping cement the movie in the real world are the performances of the ensemble cast (with Ty Simpkins and Andrew Astor also back as the Lambert sons), once again eliciting familial bonds, warmth and concern in the midst of the escalating terror. Wilson gets to strike some fresh notes and play off our affection for Josh as well as he explores another side of his role, encapsulating what it is the makes the INSIDIOUS films work: the fear that results when the familiar and comforting is invaded by a malignant influence.