The horror genre can be a varied sort when it comes to the development and execution of sequels, especially to properties that are revered beyond a cult audience. One approach is to go “business as usual,” hitting the beats of the first film once again to expand the universe while sticking feverishly to the formula of the preceding cinematic effort. Another approach is to go completely left field, as with Gremlins 2, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 or Hellraiser 2, and merely use the original film as a framing device to explore themes and content that may be too surreal or off-kilter for the casual audiences influenced by the first. But the last approach is perhaps the most peculiar, fashioning an entirely different journey with entirely different techniques but in a world that’s the same as the one established previously, such as in Poltergeist 2 or now in Film District’s Insidious: Chapter 2.It’s important for audiences, fans of the original or not, to know that Insidious: Chapter 2 is stylistically different than it’s predecessor by a mile, telling the story of the Lambert family and their haunted past with the same visual palette and tone but with completely different storytelling techniques and execution of the frights. Whereas the first film took advantage of the tropes of the haunted house film and subverted them around every corner, this sequel happens to subvert those expectations and turn in something that continues the story yet does so in a wildly different approach. This, in turn, gives the film many problems in terms of storytelling and repetition, although director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell know how to bring the fright when the chips are on the table. And as the film goes on and subplots begin to develop over and over, Wan and Whannell still make Insidious: Chapter 2 a contained and focused tale that never feels convoluted or improvised, even if certain plot points feel stretched thinner than fans of the first film may be comfortable with.
Technically speaking, Wan’s curious lens returns with longtime Wan DP John Leonetti, allowing the establishing shots, framing and color scheme to keep things familiar even though the digital filmmaking process becomes painfully and visually obvious at several crucial moments in the film. Wan’s intuition for staging horror, masterful in this summer’s The Conjuring, feels less ambitious this time around, staging moments that you can see coming a mile away even if they are rather horrific. One moment in particular when a protagonist is compromised when an antagonist figures his true intentions uses this expectation against the viewer, giving one of the most palpably intense and genuinely scary moments in the franchise’s history as the audience waits for the inevitable conclusion. That’s Wan at his horrifying best, and yet the excess of information needed to get to the admittedly clever backstory of the villain bogs down much of the film, especially Whannell’s script in which the intimate story of the Lambert’s supernatural invasion goes side-by-side with a Scooby Doo-esque ghosthunting story with the remainder of Elise’s (Lin Shaye) team and a shoehorned Barbara Hershey. In one way, the influx helps as things are a little bit unpredictable, so the feeling that anyone is expendable is apparent throughout, yet never decidedly taken action upon. Once again, Joseph Bishara’s unconventional score follows Kirk Morri’s unconventional editing frame by frame, and without these men at their respective helms, perhaps the moments of fright the film provides wouldn’t nearly have been as effective.
In terms of the acting, the film is definitely a step down from the original, despite inspired performances and wonderful smaller parts. Rose Byrne and Ty Simpkins are back with fine yet unexceptional performances, mostly as a result of the character and not of their character choices, whilst Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell are back in their roles as the comic relief, with a much bigger importance to the plot this time around. Barbara Hershey sleepwalks through the film, obviously uninspired by her dialogue and character, whilst the incredibly charming and gorgeous Joceline Donahue gives the character life through flashback sequences. However, the performances to savor from Insidious: Chapter 2 will be that of Patrick Wilson, Lin Shaye and Steve Coulter. Whereas Coulter strongly introduces a meek, albeit occasionally silly, new character into the complicated supernatural world of Insidious, Shaye brings an unforeseen humor and aggression to the role of Elise in this film as Wilson finally gives an amazing dark and schizophrenic performance unseen from the actor since he landed on the radar with Hard Candy. The ominous villain of the original is now replaced by two apparitions that seemingly need to explain their Psycho-esque motivations, and while Danielle Bisutti and Tom Fitzpatrick do a good job in their respective performance, their respective dialogue is hammy at best and borderline atrocious at worst.
While this reviewer respects Wan and Whannell’s decision to go different with the second entry of the burgeoning Insidious franchise, that same decision did open this film to a cavalcade of problems. The first of which definitely comes in terms of the storytelling tone, as funny moments and horror moments feel stilted against one another and rarely feel seamless, and in fact at times even detract from one another. As mentioned before, the tension built by Wan is sometimes negated by the digital look of several moments within important set pieces or by wooden, exposition laden dialogue. Lastly, for every moment of genuinely deserved horror, there are at least two cheap jump scares before and after, which are effective in startling the audience but never memorable enough to resonate. A special mention should also be given to how the film disposes of the shocking ending of the original, never capitalizing on what should be something incredibly important to the film’s narrative and written away in one scene and a phone call.
Overall, when it needs to be scary, Insidious: Chapter 2 is scary, no doubt about that, and the improvement of Wan as a technical director is quite apparent, but the lackluster dialogue, web-like subplot development and failure to capitalize on the unrelenting horror of the first film makes this second installment a disappointing endeavor. It’s by no means an awful film, and the performances of Wilson, Shaye and Coulter and the twist on the origin of the antagonists are truly inspired, but the mediocrity of the supporting parts feel much akin to an opportunity wasted. Wan and Whannell still make a great team, and comparatively, there’s more imagination within a single Insidious film than 90% of the horror output by the mainstream studio system. But, quite frankly, by taking a stranger approach to the property, the subversion of the original should have been a guiding force, and yet seems criminally ignored this time around, ultimately making this sequel good, but clearly far behind the horror of the original.