After their invention of the “torture porn” horror sub-genre, director James Wan and his writing partner Leigh Whannell got more ambitious with Insidious. Instead of relying on gore and queasy close-ups, Wan created terror with something as simple of a hallway or a child’s toy. For any director, this kind of tension is difficult to achieve: Wan’s wanted to create suspense with tight editing and atmosphere, and it worked. There are moments in Insidious where the audience anxiously waits for the other shoe to drop (i.e. jarring imagery that’s the payoff of the suspense). The sequel Insidious: Chapter 2 tries to recreate the same magic, except this time Wan lacks the necessary energy and imagination.
It’s been a couple years since Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) expunged a demon from their son, yet their house is fucking with them again. Wan and Whannell provide the explanation with an early flashback: as a child, Josh was visited by Elise (Lin Shaye), the supernatural expert from Insidious, and she intuited that young Josh was haunted. Rather than sever the relationship between young Josh and the ghosts, Elise hypnotized him so those memories wouldn’t affect his life. As an adult, weird shit starts to happen and Josh does not quite seem like himself (he’s possessed), so Josh’s mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) goes to Elise’s underlings (Whannell and Steve Coulter) for answers. This leads them to creepy abandoned museum, naturally, while the real Josh is stuck in The Further, a dark limbo world.
Insidious: Chapter 2 falls apart because it’s never surprising. During Wan’s tension building moments, there should be times where he’s in control of his audience, and they can’t help but cover their eyes in fear. The editing and scares are just not in the sequel: there’s a familiar, lazy sequence where things move through Renai’s house while it should be empty, and rather than be scared, there is the knowledge that Wan is failing at his attempt to scare us.
Wan touches on some primal fears here – a dark basement will always be scary for as long as they keep making horror movies – but a horror craftsman needs tight editing, and more importantly, a cohesive narrative. There is no sense of family in Insidious: Chapter 2, which is a crucial omission since all movies like this tap into the fear of breaking up our most basic institution. The Lamberts are not unit pushed to their breaking points; they’re ciphers for Wan’s bag of tricks.
Basic missteps aside, there are plenty of references for longtime horror fans. Wan and Whannell frame Insidious: Chapter 2 around two pairs of parallel horror sequences. The first pairing riffs on two trends in modern horror: Lorraine explores the abandoned hospital, found-footage style, while Renai deals with the old-school scares of her creepy-ass house. It’s the genre equivalent of mixing sweet and spicy (or something), and it’s interesting to see how Wan twists the screenplay so he can cover the different styles.
The second set of parallel sequences greatest hits of the genre: while Renai deals with Evil Josh, a la The Shining, Good Josh stumbles into a supernatural flashback that plays out like Norman Bates’ worst nightmare. Wan and Whannell have clearly done their homework, yet they tie the two Joshes with a time-travel conceit that leaves more questions than answers. Not everything has to make sense in horror movies, especially supernatural ones like these, but the screenplay upends the foundation from the original Insidious.
Insidious: Chapter 2 is not the only movie Wan and Whannell released this year. They’re also responsible for The Conjuring, which critics and audiences loved. I didn’t see it, but Svetlana raved about The Conjuring, noting how she watched the movie with her (abundant) hair covering her eyes. That’s precisely what Wan and company want, and while the look is right here, they do not achieve the same chills. Maybe Wan put all his energy into The Conjuring, and Insidious: Chapter 2 is the sloppy seconds of his directorial prowess.