Review: Insidious: Chapter 2
Note: This article was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.
If there’s anything this summer’s slate of bloated, noisy blockbusters has shown us, it’s that sometimes less is more.
Few people understand this as well as filmmaker James Wan, who first burst onto the filmmaking scene with the success of the first Saw movie and has since emerged as one of the horror genre’s most talented directors, capable of delivering effective scares with a minimum amount of money. This summer already saw the release of The Conjuring, his critically-acclaimed (and financially lucrative) take on the exorcism subgenre, and now he’s back with Insidious: Chapter 2, a sequel to his 2010 film. While it isn’t quite as satisfying as a lot of his other work, it may ultimately be more memorable, just because of Wan’s willingness embrace the sillier elements of the genre other filmmakers might wish to play down.
The strength of the first Insidious was its simplicity: it plays out largely like a standard haunted house movie before taking a sharp turn into a campier (but no less creepy) direction in its third act. In Chapter 2, this structure is tossed aside in favor of something far more ambitious. The usual jump-scares involving creaky doors, moving objects and ghostly apparitions are still here, but the plot soon becomes a much more intricate tale of spirits vying for control not only over humans, but each other as well.
The story picks up right where the first one left off, with medium Elise Reiner (Lin Shaye) having been murdered by Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) after his body was possessed by an evil spirit from The Further (that’s Insidious’ term for purgatory, or wherever the souls of the dead reside). Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) fears her husband may not be who he seems, but she has no proof, so she moves her children to the house of her mother-in-law Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) while the police investigation continues. Of course, since it’s her family that’s being haunted rather than a particular house, it isn’t long before things once again start to go bump in the night.
One of the great strengths of the Paranormal Activity series has been its commitment to turning what began as a simple film about a poltergeist into a grander mythology. Insidious: Chapter 2—which is produced by Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli—attempts something similar, with mixed results. In the first film, we learned that Josh had been haunted by the malevolent spirit of an old woman when he was a boy; in the sequel, the characters attempt to discover why. The film opens in 1986, as a young Elise Reiner helps Lorraine brainwash young Josh into repressing his ability to astral project. What follows not only reveals new information about what really happened that night, it also impacts the events of the first film.
Wan and co-writer Leigh Whannell have the right idea—the best sequels and prequels are often those that change how we interpret the original—but Chapter 2nearly collapses under the weight of its own ambition. Not only does the narrative cross-cut between parallel storylines occurring in both the real world and The Further, it also zips back-and-forth across timelines, often with little explanation as to how or why. The problem is, this conceit injects elements of a genre that requires strict rules to be set in place (the time-travel film) into supernatural horror, which by its nature relies on the unknown. The first film could get away with revealing little about how The Further actually functions as a world because it only existed as a vague and mysterious landscape for Josh to travel through in pursuit of his son. In Chapter 2, it becomes more than just a “spirit world”—it is a place where souls are haunted by memories, and its inhabitants can interact with the past in both abstract and more concrete forms. It’s a fantastic idea that unfortunately raises more questions than it answers.
Formally speaking, the film mostly succeeds. As he demonstrated only a few months ago in The Conjuring, Wan’s main strength is using set design and precise cinematography to do most of the work for him, teasing horrors that lie just around a corner or out of frame. He also knows how to incorporate sound to his advantage, inserting shrieking strings and discordant piano chords at just the right moment to startle viewers. Insidious: Chapter 2 showcases this talent for creating dread through simple techniques, but it commits so fully to a more elaborate story that the prospect of having to tie up all the dangling plot threads eventually becomes the scariest thing about it.
Ghost stories are frightening because ghosts are shapeless and undefined, not bound by the physical laws of reality. In trying to apply Inception-style literalism to abstract concepts, Wan and Whannell risk undermining the very thing that makes supernatural horror spooky: the unknown. It’s an admirable decision that unfortunately doesn’t quite mesh together into a satisfying payoff. Insidious: Chapter 2 wants to haunt its cake and eat it too, all while explaining every ingredient that went into it. The closing moments offer a nearly incomprehensible tease for a third installment; let’s hope that before that happens, Wan figures out out just what kind of series he wants this to be.