James Wan inadvertently created some big shoes for himself to fill by directing this year’s instant classic ghost story, The Conjuring. One of the year’s nicest surprises, the super scary chiller—depicting a haunting and possession as a master class in elegant lighting, sound design and rising dread—offered strong evidence that Wan (who launched the Saw franchise) had, by going old school, graduated to the big leagues. And he may have.
But everyone has an off day. And such we have Insidious: Chapter 2, an unnecessary sequel that is at once overwritten, contrived and not scary. The nearly incoherent story, with too many characters and an overabundance of “boo” moments at the expense of any real suspense, adds unnecessary plot convolutions and allusions to better movies, wasting the talents of all involved. Produced by Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) from a story by Wan and Leigh Whannell, Wan’s long-time collaborator who penned the screenplay and reprises his role here as one-half of a bumbling pair of phenomena investigators, the film is, as most sequels are, an example of how bigger doesn’t equal better.
2010’s Insidious—the story of a nice, suburban couple (Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne) whose young son was possessed by an menacing entity—was an unexpected sleeper, a very creepy horror movie that employed effective bumps in the night, shivery atmosphere, a few nods to 1962’s seminal Carnival of Souls and the superb Lin Shaye as a psychic who saw dead people, to her own peril. The new film follows Josh (Patrick) and Renai (Rose) Lambert, their three sons and Josh’s mother (Barbara Hershey, nice to see front and center) into not so much a new mystery as an immediate continuation of Insidious’ demonic crisis.
The picture begins on wobbly footing with an extended flashback to a 1986 episode referenced in the first film, whereas young Josh (Garrett Ryan) is haunted by a mysterious entity. His distraught mother (Jocelyn Donahue) hires psychic Elsie Ranier (Lindsay Seim) to evaluate the disturbance, and in a strange directorial choice Wan dubs in the voice of Lin Shaye, who played the aged Elsie in Insidious and reprises the role later in this picture. The voice and age don’t match, and take us out of the movie. We learn later that time and space fold together during this sequence, so perhaps that was the point, however distracting.
Anyone who remembers the sucker-punch at the end of Insidious knows that Josh, during a trip to “The Further”—a clearinghouse for spirits trapped between worlds—brought that frightening childhood entity back into the present. And that is pretty much the premise of this new chapter, giving Wan and Whannell numerous opportunities to nod, and not subtly, to Kubrick’s The Shining. Josh skulks around possessed, telling Renai to “relax” after she witnesses a strange woman lurking in shadowy corners of the house, baby monitors mysteriously signal otherworldly voices, pianos play by themselves, children’s toys spring to life—you get the picture, and you’ve seen it before.
After the prologue and a quick scene of exposition, Whannell quickly adds too much story, too many red herrings and in beefing up Hershey’s role, the film goes off the rails with, of all things, a middle-of-the-night trip to a broken down old hospital that holds the key to the haunting. Did I mention that another character, aging clairvoyant Carl (Steve Coulter), unravels the mystery via psychic Scrabble? That another “dies” and then comes back to life? That we return for an extended trip into The Further, on the hunt for a formerly abused, cross-dressing mental case? Or that nearly an hour into the film I asked myself, “What the hell is this about?”
When the great Shaye finally shows up in the final reel (to a round of applause from the audience I saw it with), it’s too little, too late, and she’s expected to deliver mumbo jumbo dialogue like, “I can take away his powers and try to make him forget,” which is a tall order even given her gifts.
Whereas the first picture focused on the primal desire to save a child and reunite a family, this one is more about a twisty mystery with a spectral villainess who tries so hard to scare us that the picture veers, with all of the close-up screeching and music crashes, into camp. And dispensing with the family dynamics, there is no emotional access point. We watch the trumped-up depravity from a distance, unengaged.
Perhaps most disappointing is the lack of true suspense in Insidious: Chapter 2, replaced by a pile up of narrative contrivances and shock cuts leading to a hyper-violent, mean-spirited climax that even references 1983’s cult item Sleepaway Camp (indeed!) for good measure.
No one can argue that Wan is a skilled director with a comprehensive knowledge of horror films and an accomplished aesthetic. Yet while The Conjuring was a first-class thriller that relied heavily on what we didn’t see to scare us, Insidious: Chapter 2 simply gives us too many demons, extrapolating on the least frightening sections of the first film. And the overuse of the line “There’s something standing behind you” (also employed in The Conjuring) renders it effectively passé in a ho-hum coda priming us for a third chapter.
Insidious: Chapter 2 is superfluous, driven as sequels typically are by something other than a story’s need to continue. In 1982’s Poltergeist, a memorable Zelda Rubenstein (in the Shaye role) uttered the now-famous line, “It knows what scares you.”
And this picture simply doesn’t, much as I admire Wan and company.
1 1/2 stars.