In 2011, director James Wan scored a surprise hit with Insidious, a PG-13 haunting movie that delivered the scares. Its strong grosses and reviews severed Wan and his writing partner, Leigh Whannell, from their bloody roots in the Saw franchise, and the former found mainstream success with The Conjuring. With a gig helming Fast & Furious 7, Wan announced his graduation to the lofty realm of flicks that get their thrills from CGI flying cars rather than from half-transparent curtains and strategically placed mirrors.
Wan and Whannell also took the time to bring us Insidious: Chapter 2, a fine-looking, consistently silly, rarely unsettling horror film. Whannell’s script respects the audience enough to maintain narrative continuity with Insidious and tie a few knots in that narrative. It also has no compunction about using and abusing entries in the Big Book of Horror Clichés — sometimes with such a huge wink that this sequel almost qualifies as spoof.
Take the scene where a bumbling team of paranormal investigators (Whannell, Angus Sampson and Steve Coulter) try to summon the spirit of their resident medium (Lin Shaye), who died in the first film. “It’s not an exact science,” Coulter apologizes, when the spirit seems coy. Whereupon the lights dim on cue, and the room flickers with spooky special effects like a theme-park ride. The message from beyond is clear: Puh-leeze, like anyone believes your pseudo-scientific BS. Bring on the ghosts!
In the first film, those ghosts sneaked into the world of the living by hitching rides with Dalton Lambert (Ty Simpkins), a kid with a habit of involuntary astral projection. His dad, Josh (Patrick Wilson), blessed or cursed with the same talent, projected himself into a hellish spirit dimension to save his son. But did Josh return unscathed, or with a stowaway?
The medium’s strangled corpse suggests all is not right with the Lambert family. But the cops address the murder with a shrug, and the only one who considers Josh a suspect is his wife, Renai (Rose Byrne). When the Lamberts begin experiencing creepy phenomena in the stately Victorian home of Josh’s mom (Barbara Hershey), Renai seeks her help in ending the hauntings for good.
Hershey and Shaye camp things up satisfyingly, but the movie has only two real stars. One is the aforementioned Victorian, with tactically placed light sources washing it in queasy shades of salmon and magenta. The other is Wilson’s low-key impression of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Too often cast as a square-jawed square, he appears to be having fun for once.
So does the audience — assuming it doesn’t mind giggling as often as shuddering. Wan does a few elegant things with his camera, such as sweeping it down the house’s hallway past multiple doors through which we think we see something untoward. Once the specters actually turn and face us, however, they’re about as bone-chilling as the makeup-slathered actors in a backyard Halloween scarehouse. Only one scene in the film attains the power of nightmare, though it’s less a “scene” than a clever tableau showcasing that homely old horror prop, the bed sheet.
With Insidious: Chapter 2, Wan swoops away from earnest, pared-down horror toward the gleefully WTF mode of “American Horror Story.” He steals from pretty much everything, including The Conjuring (Shaye’s character has an occult museum worthy of Lorraine Warren); he takes more care with the hairstyles in his ’80s flashbacks than with their acting; and he ends the movie on a teaser that suggests a middle finger to the audience. Egregious would be a better title than Insidious, but was I bored? Not a ghost of a chance.