Directed by: James Wan.
Written by: Leigh Whannell & James Wan.
Starring: Patrick Wilson (Josh Lambert), Rose Byrne (Renai Lambert), Ty Simpkins (Dalton Lambert), Lin Shaye (Elise Rainier), Barbara Hershey (Lorraine Lambert), Steve Coulter (Carl), Leigh Whannell (Specs), Angus Sampson (Tucker), Andrew Astor (Foster Lambert), Hank Harris (Young Carl), Jocelin Donahue (Young Lorraine), Lindsay Seim (Young Elise Rainier), Danielle Bisutti (Mother of Parker Crane), Tyler Griffin (Young Parker), Garrett Ryan (Young Josh), Tom Fitzpatrick (Bride in Black / Old Parker), Michael Beach (Detective Sendal).
Perhaps the biggest problem with Insidious: Chapter 2 is heightened expectations. When the original film came out in 2010, I went in not expecting much. James Wan was the director of the first (and best) of the Saw series, the horrible Dead Silence, and the underrated revenge film Death Sentence – but nothing I had seen made me believe he had a truly great horror movie in him. But Insidious was just about as good as mainstream American horror films get – it was well made, built on tension, not gore, had relatable characters and was genuinely scary. Than just two months ago, Wan outdid himself with the surprise summer hit The Conjuring – a film that wanted to be a more realistic horror film – and succeeded. Like many films, it owes a large debt to The Exorcist, and well it didn’t break new ground like that 1973 classic, it is about as good as the films The Exorcist has inspired can possibly be. Coming off of back to back genuinely frightening, well-made horror movie then, Wan faced something with Insidious: Chapter 2 he didn’t before – people actually expecting a horror movie to be good.
To be fair, Insidious: Chapter 2 is in no way a bad way film. Yes, it repeats the first film a little too much – as is to be expected in an sequel – and it is at times a little too clever for its own sake – trying to explain some of what happened in the original film with the events in this film. Horror movies require full immersion by the audience for them to work – which is why, I like to see them with as few people in the theater as possible (an errant cell phone, some whispers, etc. that normally you brush off quickly can spoil the whole atmosphere of even the best horror movies). By trying to be a little too clever – and adding in a few moments of bizarre comic relief that border on slapstick – Wan takes you out of Insidious: Chapter 2 a little too often for it to as sustained an exercise in horror filmmaking as his last two films.
Still though, you have to give Wan credit. He may not exactly come up with new ways to scare the audience – his horror movie style is still more rooted in classical tropes (which meant the torture porn he was saddled with for years after Saw was always unwarranted), but he does find ways to subtly shift those classic tropes. He never quite gives us precisely what we are expecting from him, and finds ways to make his films not just scary, but genuinely unsettling. These aren’t horror movie you see once are momentarily scared by while watching and then forget about them. These are the horror movies you find yourself thinking about in the dead of night when you hear a strange noise.
I don’t want to say much about the plot of Insidious: Chapter 2 for a few reasons – the first being, as with any scary movie, surprise is a necessary element for them to work. And the second is that the secrets of Insidious: Chapter are all fairly obvious – if you don’t figure most of them out well before the movie makes its series of big reveals, than I doubt you’ve seen too many horror movies before. I will say that for the most part, the performances are a step above most horror movies – especially by the veterans – Barbara Hershey, given much more to do this time out, Lin Shaye as the medium who isn’t as creepy as she appears, and Steve Coulter, as a newcomer to the series. Poor Patrick Wilson is stuck with a nearly impossible role, and Rose Bryne, while appropriately terrified at the right moments, is more shunted off to the background that I expected.
Does Insidious: Chapter 2 work? Kind of. There are some wonderful horror movie set pieces in the film (never have dice seemed scarier), but it doesn’t have the same kind of propulsive terror that either the original Insidious or The Conjuring had. The result is a movie that is less than the sum of its parts. Wan, however, is still one of the American horror movies directors to watch – perhaps the only one working in truly mainstream horror (others, like Rob Zombie or Ti West, are doing smaller films). It’s almost too bad Wan is directing the next Fast & Furious movie – partly because Justin Lin has done a very good job of elevating those movies in the last few installments, but also because I want to see Wan continue to hone his horror movie chops. Insidious: Chapter 2 may not be the triumph that Insidious or The Conjuring were – but it’s made by a very talented director.