I’m starting to think that James Wan had a special relationship with the bogeyman growing up. Each of the director’s features thus far, excepting the Kevin Bacon revenge thriller Death Sentence, have, in some way or other, honed in on the shadow monster hiding behind head-shaking pragmatism of adulthood.
Whether it’s the twisted, medieval morality of the mysterious Jigsaw or the phantasmal wrath of otherworldly critters, Wan (and often his collaborator Leigh Whannell) seems inordinately interested in the darkness lurking just over your shoulder. The appropriately named Insidious: Chapter 2 opens up another portal to this presence, one stuffed to the gills with funhouse amusements and shambling mysticism.
Explicitly linked to its predecessor, the 2011 chiller that never met a screeching violin chord it didn’t like, Insidious 2 abandons the traditional creeps of Wan’s The Conjuring and heads back to the dime store. Hags in caked make-up and slathered eye shadow wander smoke-drenched, nocturnal corridors, characters get possessed and pull out their teeth, and, yes, something particularly loathsome has taken up residence in young Dalton Lambert’s (Ty Simpkins) closet.
Wan and Whannell keep the fright quotient up, and muster some significant tension with their newest twist; Lambert patriarch Josh (Patrick Lambert) is inhabited by an entity from the Further, whose possession motto appears to be “drive it like you stole it.” Worried wife Renai (Rose Byrne) and grandma Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) are left to puzzle out what exactly happened in the wake of medium Elise’s death at the end of the first picture. Along the way toddler paraphernalia like a baby bouncer and child monitor go haywire, take on a life of their own and terrorize the adults, mostly by being tripping hazards. As one who has a 16-month old, there’s nothing particularly supernatural about this occurrence, but I’ll cede it can still take your breath away.
If Insidious aped the basic structure and intent of Poltergeist, then this newest film is Poltergeist II: The Other Side, a cheerfully absurd addendum that drains the monstrous of its dread by forcefully explaining it away. In both cases, grand, malignant adversaries are reduced to grinning, spastic oldsters in morgue get-up, although there’s nothing in I2 as delightfully wrong-headed as Craig T. Nelson vomiting up a squid baby that grows into an evil Puritan minister. In fact, as Insidious Chapter 2 struggles to be more sensible and cohesive than its predecessor, it loses some of that vital kid-in-a-candy-store vigor. This is the kind of movie that could use a few more squid babies vomited forth.
The acting and production are sometimes hampered by an extremely clunky script, but most of the performers do what they can. Patrick Wilson, more stoic and reserved in this summer’s The Conjuring, gets to chew the scenery here in ‘evil Josh’ mode, turning up the ham as the ghoul inside becomes more pronounced. Byrne still looks lost and alone, which is sort of the point of the character, but she never properly registers that domestic fear when her partner becomes a stranger overnight.
Hershey is fun as Josh’s proactive mother who won’t be resting on her laurels when ghosts attack, and House of the Devil’s Jocelyn Donahue is convincing as the same character decades earlier. The kids come off just about the best, mostly because Wan appears to relate to their viewpoint the best. The most affecting scene by far involves Simpkins playing a sinister game with a makeshift tin-can phone, the string drawn tight and trailing off into the closet where a snaky voice whispers torment.
Ghost chasers Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Simpson) return as sporadic comic relief. Let me clarify; they are ceaseless in their efforts to amuse, but only occasionally hit the target. Watching Tucker’s Sasquatch physique blast into a creepy room with the force of the Kool-Aid man may be hilarious, but several other scenes feel like as if they were plucked from Kevin Smith’s cutting-room floor.
Due to a rather clever time travel conceit, we do get to see Elise again, both as Lin Shaye and the younger, firmer model circa 1986, who spends most of the opening with her plaid backside wandering halls as little Josh intones “Warmer, warmer, you’re hot, very hot.” While it would pretend glumness, Insidious 2 is chock-full of incidentally amusing moments like that. There’s a Joan Crawford-esque instance of child abuse that plays completely the wrong tone, not least because it has a cross-dressing scene that visually references Pippi Long-Stockings.
It remains a curious contrast to see Wan deliver a solid ghost story with The Conjuring, and then lose his way here when reteaming with Whannell. Although there’s a good bit of crossover in theme, cast and crew, there remains a significant lack of confidence and energy. The real limitation is simply that Insidious: Chapter 2 is the sequel to a movie that felt undercooked to begin with. In many ways, Wan and Whannell have tightened up their intentions and streamlined the story, while crisscrossing events to draw both films together into a mutually improving experience. Alas, if you thought the first outing was a bunch of smoke and mirrors, then there’s no reason for you to go any Further.
Insidious: Chapter 2 opens in wide release this Friday, September 13th.
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