I might have to make an exception for my horror movie hatred. And that exception is James Wan, who’s known for his work with the original Saw film, Insidious, and most recently The Conjuring, which I loved. I like Wan because he’s returning the horror genre to old-school “creepy” and not relying on gore and torture porn to scare us.
Insidious 2 is the second chapter of the Insidious story, which follows the Lambert family and their hauntings. You might be wondering why they needed to make the “second chapter” of this story (because, ugh, sequels), and for that I have two reasons.
The first movie ended with quite the cliffhanger, and it also made $54 million domestically off a $1.5 million budget. Now, I’ll be honest—I did not see the first Insidious. I tried to find it at my local video store this week before I went to see the sequel, but they only had it on Blu-Ray (Who does that?). And while I did read a very thorough, movie-spoiling plot synopsis of the first film so that I’d have an idea of what was going on, I still can’t help but feel like this was no better than a high school student reading SparkNotes to understand Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. For that, I apologize. But I’m going to do my best to give you a good review despite that fact.
Here’s how FilmDistrict describes the plot: “The famed horror team of director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell reunite with the original cast of Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, and Ty Simpkins in Insidious 2, a terrifying sequel to the acclaimed horror film, which follows the haunted Lambert family as they seek to uncover the mysterious childhood secret that has left them dangerously connected to the spirit world.” Well, since FilmDistrict’s plot description for Insidious 2 was terribly unhelpful, I’ll bring you up to speed in the spoiler section.
Following the events of the first film, Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) Lambert have moved their family into Josh’s childhood home with Josh’s mom, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey). Josh hasn’t been the same ever since he ventured into the “in-between” spirit world called The Further to rescue his son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins). That, of course, is because he returned possessed by the spirit of an old woman who’s been following him since he was a child. Because Josh is possessed, the Lamberts are far from done with the hauntings. The moment they get settled in Lorraine’s home, weird things begin to happen. Renai is terrorized by moving furniture and a woman in a Victorian gown, who keeps scaring her baby. Dalton keeps hearing voices and seeing apparitions. And Josh is acting stranger and stranger each day. To make matters worse, this time, the Lamberts can’t turn to their family-friend and psychic Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) because she was strangled to death by Josh (under possession).
Once everything has been established, the movie divides the story into two separate focuses. The first is Josh, Renai, and their kids, as they experience the creepy goings-on at the house. The second is Lorraine, Elise’s colleague Carl (Steve Coulter), and ghost hunters Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), who try to learn who’s possessing Josh. While this “divide and conquer” approach does give the movie more time to develop the backstory of Josh and his possessor, it takes away from the more important tension between Josh, Renai, and their kids, which would have been more congruous with the theme of the first Insidious. Not to mention, when we finally learn that the spirit possessing Josh is actually a psychologically-damaged and gender-confused man named Parker Crane (Tom Fitzpatrick), who dressed in drag to kill his female victims when he was alive, the movie starts to feel a little Law & Order: SVU. In other words, the script and the dialogue become increasingly cheesier.
Also, I’m not even going to attempt discussing the whole astral plane, space-time continuum mess that this movie goes into. And considering that the time-travel thing during Josh’s adventures in The Further doesn’t exist to be the sole point of this movie’s story (like it was with Looper), it’s okay to just shake it off and let it be what it is.
Since James Wan is old-school, you can tell that The Exorcism, Poltergeist, and The Shining had influences in this movie, as they did in The Conjuring. The “in-between” spirit world, the furniture moving by itself, Renai’s motherly fears, possession, Josh trying to murder Renai and his kids—these ideas are all very derivative from more original stories. What’s annoying is that this sequel derives from its predecessor, which is already a derivative of other films. Now, I didn’t notice this as much because I haven’t seen Insidious, but all of the Insidious 2 reviews I’ve read from people who have seen the first say this is the movie’s main downfall—that it’s a blatant copy of itself. But isn’t the problem with every sequel that it wants to be as good as its predecessor and doesn’t know how?
Beyond the fact that this movie directly copies itself, it is still ten times better than the shitty horror movies we see on the market today. Why? Because Wan knows what he’s doing. Rather than using blood, guts, rape, and torture to frighten the audience, Wan and his crew utilize the skill of their actors, their makeup department, and good timing to establish the scary atmosphere in this movie (and when I say “good timing,” I mean Wan throws things at you right when you start to think nothing interesting is happening). What I find especially interesting is that the scares are rather predictable, yet they always managed to surprise the people in my theater (If it weren’t for the fact that I watch so many movies and pay attention to the musical and plot cues, I might have jumped, too). Also, Wan really likes the low-key effects in his horror movies, so no overabundance of unbelievable CGI.
As for the actors, the majority of them are useless. They pretty much just say lines to push the plot along. For example, Specs and Tucker, the ghost hunters, are only there to be the comic relief. That’s it. Rose Byrne’s Renai is especially disappointing. We should’ve been treated to more Josh and Renai dynamic throughout this movie, but it seemed like Renai’s only purpose in this movie was to cry and look scared. Patrick Wilson, on the other hand, is the only actor in this movie who delivers a commendable performance within a decent amount of screen-time. His transition into Parker Crane (with some help from the makeup department) totally made the hair on the back of my neck rise. Like the part where he and Carl play the “What’s behind my back?” game (Hint: It’s not a puppy). *shivers* His face was menacing. And is it just me, or is Wilson becoming Wan’s horror muse?
Overall, Insidious 2 is what it is. A messy, derivative sequel with some weird Law & Order: SVU-like moments and actors who don’t get enough time to develop, well, anything (“But you already know them!” says the production company who can’t understand why sequels aren’t as good as their predecessors). But it’s still a decent horror movie, and that’s because director James Wan knows how to craft a good scare. He waits for the moment where the story starts to get boring and then blindsides you. Plus, he’s the kind of filmmaker that knows he doesn’t need an overload of CGI or shock-value gimmicks to make his audience feel ill at ease. That’s why this movie, which is just okay, is still leagues above other horror films (I could actually see myself watching it again).
As for the grading, let me explain. If I’d judged Insidious 2 against movies from every genre, it’s more like a C. But since I’ve watched my fair share of lame, gross, and unnecessarily disturbing horror movies that I would rather see rot away in a Walmart $5 bin somewhere, I’ve given this movie a little nudge up the scale. Because I’d rather encourage the movies that have the right elements with a shaky foundation than those that are just awful.