What have we learned from director Wan and screenwriter/actor Leigh Whannell over the past (very lucky, for them) decade? Since the duo first kicked off a genuine resurgence in goregasm filmmaking (2004’s Saw and its sequels) and the more outré sort of "gotcha!" neo-haunted-housers (Wan’s The Conjuring), the prodigious pair – along with Paranormal Activity alum Oren Peli – have re-animated the genre shocker as a Saturday-night date-clincher. And that's no small feat; hormonal teenagers everywhere have rejoiced ever since. (Peli, by the way, produced both Insidious films.)
Personally, I have a love/loathe relationship with their output, ranging from genuinely impressed (The Conjuring) to deeply depressed (the lackadaisical Insidious). Insidious: Chapter 2 is perhaps an even more scattershot mess than its predecessor. Whannell's script is so rife with portentous backstory, third-act goofiness, and a denouement that practically screams Insidious 3: Same Old Shit, that the film as a whole is jarring, and not in a good way. An early shot of Herk Harvey's 1962 Carnival of Souls telegraphs pretty much everything you need to know going in, but whereas the amateur/industrial filmmaker Harvey's dreamy masterpiece crafted low-budget unease (so much so that the film is now part of The Criterion Collection), Insidious: Chapter 2 is all smoke and mirrors – with a confusing paucity of the shadows therein. It's effective at times, but utterly overbusy, setting up plot points for future films and tripping daisies over an afterlife which is, at best, difficult to decipher.
Speaking of which, Wilson, Byrne, and Simpkins return as the haunted Lambert family. Whannell and Sampson also crop back up, to comic effect, as paranormal investigators Specs and Tucker. And Barbara Hershey, channeling the recently departed horror icon Karen Black, remanifests as well. Hershey is the most thrilling, human thing about this film.
So what have we learned from Wan, Whannell, and their new/old horror recipes? One: You can never overquote Robert Wise's The Haunting too much. Two: Never look in the mirror, and never, ever move into a craggy, Charles Addams-esque manse. Three: Never have children. Spawn more than one and the next thing you know you're living in The Village of the Damned. Also of note: Shock cuts and jangly music cues will forever cause your date to rise three inches in her seat and throw her arms around you.
Not a bad thing at all, of course, but rarely requisite for a film intended to rattle your head and blow your soul away. It's easy enough to put nightmares on the big screen. It's far more formidable to plant the seeds of madness in your mind, to be carried in a cocoon of aftershock – black baggage and all – for days, weeks, months, a lifetime.
In case you don’t have the events of the first Insidious seared into your brain like an inescapable childhood trauma, here’s a reminder: The film left off with our heroes Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) having just retrieved their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) from the Further, a spirit-filled purgatorial dimension into which Dalton and Josh were able to project themselves. Unfortunately, Josh came back possessed by an evil murderous presence, and the film had ended with him killing Elise (Lin Shaye), the old family friend and paranormal investigator who had helped them through the ordeal. Insidious: Chapter 2 basically picks up from that point, and, for a while, it teases that question whose answer had seemed so clear at the end of the original: Is this the real Josh or a demonic interloper?
That tough balancing act — not all viewers will remember everything about the first film, and some will recall everything about it — puts a lot on Patrick Wilson’s able shoulders, and the actor, who’s becoming an old hand at this genre, runs with it. Having done solid work as the straight-laced hero in both the original and this summer’s The Conjuring, he’s now graduated to Jack Torrance–dom, the anti-hero who might just turn out to be the bad guy after all. When he tells his son that he’s just glad the boy is back, does he mean it? And when he seemingly talks into empty air, who’s he talking to … and what side of the conversation is he on? These aren’t particularly original questions for horror, but Wilson brings just the right amount of pathos and deadly charm to this otherwise opaque presence. Seriously, if Stephen King is determined to continue in his ill-advised quest to try and re-remake The Shining, he should lock Wilson down right now.
The actor has fine support behind the camera, too. As demonstrated impressively in The Conjuring, director James Wan’s main talent lies in taking the typical elements of horror and reanimating them. Creaking doors, children’s games, haunted toys, ghost-women in white gowns who wander solemnly in the background before suddenlyscreaminghorrificallyinyourface … We’ve seen all this stuff before. (I’m pretty sure that’s the same closet from The Conjuring that keeps opening mysteriously.) But Wan understands the ability of the camera to revitalize these familiar tropes, and he uses it with power and grace. In The Conjuring, his camera stalked the characters, which fit in with the idea of a spirit presence at loose among the members of an unwitting family. This time, the camera fixates, often staying static or moving in slowly and deliberately, though still relentlessly; appropriate for a story that pits different realms and dimensions against one another. Even when the characters use handheld video cameras and the film briefly drifts into found-footage land (producer Oren Peli, let’s not forget, is the mastermind behind the Paranormal Activity series), Wan uses the form creatively: At one point, a character brings his camera down and away from a supposedly empty room, and we catch, unbeknownst to him, the upside-down image of an apparition sitting right behind him.
As a scare machine, Insidious: Chapter 2 is in excellent working condition, but it also goes to some odd places, as we see more of the Further and have different aspects of it (not entirely clearly) explained to us. The second half of the film’s speed in resolving plot points is matched only by its ability to create newer, stranger ones. To be fair, Wan and writer Leigh Whannell have always had a bit of a David Lynchian streak to them. In the first Saw, this seemed to result in weird bits of stylization that felt out of sync with the old-school shocks the movie trafficked in. That’s not so much of a problem here, because they’ve become much better filmmakers: Now the film’s gathering Gothic absurdism ultimately helps to enhance our connection to the characters. Insidious: Chapter 2 may be somewhat uneven, but at a certain point near the end, I realized I hadn’t taken any notes during the second half. For all its weirdness, the film had utterly transported me. Bring on Chapter 3.