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Non-Review Review: Insidious – Chapter 2

Horror sequels are tough to execute, particularly where you have a returning cast. After all, strong horror films typically work by ramping up the pressure on the central character, building inexorably towards a climax. It’s very hard to follow on from that – where do you go? It’s very difficult to wind the tension back down and start ramping up from scratch, and the same trick is never as effective the second time.

Insidious: Chapter 2 faces these challenges, and – to its credit – it tries to work around them. It embraces an almost camp aesthetic to help compensate for the fact that it effectively kicks off at maximum volume, relishing the sheer absurdity of its demonic co-stars. It splits the main cast up in order to allow it to try to maintain a constant sense of pressure, while also delving into back story and origin. It subtly shifts its frame of reference from movies about possession and haunting toward a different sort of horror film.

However, these attempts aren’t as successful as they might be. While there are moments of wit, the humour and heightened camp occasionally causes tonal confusion. Splitting the cast up is too convenient a narrative device and diffuses (rather than maintains) the tension. Slasher and serial killer movies are hard to get right at the best of times, and the movie’s climax feels awkward grafted on to a possession story. Insidious: Chapter 2 has moments where it works very well, but also spends a significant amount of its running time groping in the dark.

Well, at least it's an amicable haunting...

Well, at least it’s an amicable haunting…

To be fair, it’s hard to envy writer Leigh Whannel and director James Wan. The duo are a driving force in modern mainstream horror cinema. They helped define the genre in the early years of the twenty-first century when they produced Saw, which remains a horror classic, even if the torture porn subgenre it inspired has a lot to answer for. More recently, the duo have been spearheading a “back to basics” approach, trying to construct accessible horror films built around traditional “jump” scares and loud string and brass sections.

The Conjuring is arguably the best example of this approach, embracing its seventies aesthetic so completely that even the title cards are done in a retro style. While the original Insidious lacked the sideburns and the dodgy fashion (and the period setting), the film owed a clear debt to all those classic haunted house and possession horrors of the sixties and seventies, feeling like an affectionate throwback to an era of horror that has fallen by the wayside.

The family first noticed problems when the dry ice machine kept turning itself on...

The family first noticed problems when the dry ice machine kept turning itself on…

There’s a temptation in discussing Insidious: Chapter 2 to describe it as a throwback to another sort of horror: the well-meaning, but often misguided sequel. Think Halloween 2 or Nightmare on Elm Street 2 or Friday the Thirteenth, Part II. After all, horror is a genre that seems to have a great deal of difficulty producing sequels that are memorable for the right reasons. To the point that sequels which are high quality – Wes Craven’s New Nightmare or Scream 4, for example – often have to fight against the preconception that horror sequels traditional suck.

That comparison feels somewhat apt – Insidious: Chapter 2 falls into a few of the familiar sequel plot holes. It picks up almost immediately following the closing scene of Insidious, ignoring the fact that the movie’s ending works better as an unanswered cliffhanger than as a basis for a two-hour film. The film has to contort and bend in order to write itself out of the corner we found ourselves in at the end of Insidious, stretching itself to bring back Lin Shaye. (The opening vocal cameo, dubbed over a younger actress is distracting. Anything more is unnecessary.)

What's behind door number one?

What’s behind door number one?

We’re asked to accept that our characters – who have enduring one haunting already – will make the same mistakes again. It feels surreal that we open on a police investigation that is quickly brushed aside so the haunting can recommence. Even when the first signs of the haunting occur again, the family seems rather slow to react – everybody is sleeping in separate bedrooms, which makes them prey to these malevolent spirits. Characters wander down rabbit holes without informing each other first. Both Renai and her mother-in-law experience terrifying visions, but the plot contorts to keep them from speaking to one another about those visions until the final third.

These are standard horror movie tropes, and a lot of them feel like par from the course. However, it strains credibility to see the same characters making the same mistakes so soon after their last encounter. (Despite the increased age of the child performers, Insidious: Chapter 2 is set in the days immediately following Insidious.) More than that, though, Insidious: Chapter 2 makes a mistake quite common to horror sequels. It makes the assumption that the monster is more interesting than the victims.

Because nothing creepy is bound to happen in the room with the dolls' house and rocking horses...

Because nothing creepy is bound to happen in the room with the dolls’ house and rocking horses…

Perhaps it’s because we’ve already spent a film with these people, or perhaps it’s an attempt to buy time, or perhaps it’s a desire to explain a powerful visual from the first the film. No matter what the reason, Insidious: Chapter 2 spends far too much time on exposition. It provides an origin and back story for one of the ghosts from the first film, missing the fact that the unknowable and unexplainable is always more terrifying than some convenient Freudian psycho-babble.

To be fair to the film, it is trying something a bit different. The movie’s frame of reference has changed quite a bit. While spirits and ghosts are still referenced, there’s no mention of demons or demonic forces at work. Instead of drawing from possession or haunting stories, Insidious: Chapter 2 draws heavily from early slasher films. In particular, the movie’s villain owes a considerable debt to Psycho, while the climax feels like an obvious homage to The Shining. (Albeit with – in one of the movie’s better visual gags – a fire-extinguisher rather than a fire-axe.)

"I knew using this abandoned blacked-out sound stage as a living room was a bad idea..."

“I knew using this abandoned blacked-out sound stage as a living room was a bad idea…”

It is a clever twist, even if Wan and Whannell have difficulty seguing between the two genres. The transition is less than smooth, and it’s not really helped by the movie’s sense of humour. It’s nice that Insidious: Chapter 2 never takes itself too seriously, and Patrick Wilson has the time of his life camping it up as a man altered by his trip to the other side. Another lovely gag has Wilson’s husband failing to recognise the song his wife wrote for him. “The song’s not what you need to be worrying about right now,” he deflects after a moment’s awkward pause. His wife is left to wonder whether he’s just a really crap husband or something more severe is wrong.

While the gags occasionally work quite well – a snore, rather than a twitch, to inform us a character is still alive – the make the psychological horror hard to take seriously. At times, Insidious: Chapter 2 feels more like a subtle spoof than a genuine horror film, which undermines a lot of what should probably be the heavier dramatic moments. The film struggles to find the right balance, and so neither the jokes nor the shocks land quite as well as they might.

Grave danger...

Grave danger…

It’s also worth noting that Wan and Whannell do at least try to be a little creative in tying the film to its predecessor. While it occasionally feels a little too convoluted or contrived, there’s a wonderful reveal about one of the more atmospheric moments from the first film. It fits surprisingly well, not feeling like a conscious attempt to re-write the first movie. That said, Insidious: Chapter 2 features a strangely high number of action sequences for a horror film, apparently opting for a more “hands-on” approach to fighting demons than usual.

Insidious: Chapter 2 is a disjointed an uneven mess, but one with moments of great wit and some very worthwhile ideas. Unfortunately, it never figures out how to offset those ideas against the problems that usually face horror sequels, leading to a disappointing result.

4 Responses

  1. Sounds like I will save my admission for Wan’s other summer horror movie.

  2. I loved this movie. Loved it, loved it, loved it. James Wan is one of the best directors of recent times and he makes his stand by offering two awesome horror movies this year. I personally preferred Insidious 2 though, as I appreciated the rich character development and the concept of the Further. There are clear references to The Shining and Psycho but this movie leaves its own mark of disturbing. Of course it’s always great to add some light humor in between to dilute the scares (as they REALLY packed a punch in this second installment). So if you’re kind of doubting the movie based on its bad rep, don’t listen to the negative comments/reviews as this is easily one of the best movies this year. Everyone did a phenomenal job and the end product turned out a lot more satisfying than I expected.

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