Written by: Leigh Whannell and James Wan
Directed by: James Wan
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, and Barbara Hershey
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďIn my line of work, things tend to happen when it gets dark."
At first glance, Insidious: Chapter Two just seems like a unique sequel title, but itís actually the first hint that James Wan and Leigh Whannell have no interest in taking the easy route by simply reproducing the events of the original film. For better or worse (and depending upon your tolerance for the first filmís hard left turn into ďThe Further,Ē), this follow-up is exactly what the title promises: the next logical step in the story rather than a predictable repeat. The approach allows Insidious: Chapter Two to spiral off and do its own weird thing; as so many genre sequels are content to simply reheat and serve leftovers, itís refreshing that Wan and Whannell have crafted one that isnít afraid to blow up the formula in favor of actually advancing its story.
The launching point here is pre-ordained by the originalís ending, which found Lambert patriarch Josh (Patrick Wilson) possessed by a malevolent spirit from The Further, an afterlife dimension housing all sorts of discontented souls. With medium Elise Ranier (Lin Shaye) left mysteriously strangled to death, the police have begun to investigate the bizarre scene, thus forcing the Lamberts to move in with Joshís mother (Barbara Hershey), where Renais (Rose Byrne) continues to be spooked. Son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) is still experiencing restless nights, while thereís something a little off about Joshóand thatís not to mention all of the bizarre phenomena cropping up around the house.
Such a setup provides an easy avenue for another riff on Poltergeist and Amityville, but Insidious: Chapter Two doesnít just take that path but also a couple more. From the outset, itís obvious that the film has more on its mind, as it opens with a prologue set in 1986 that illuminates the backstory hinted at in the original film. Here, young Josh (Garrett Ryan) is the one haunted by an unseen entity while his mother (Jocelyn Donahue) consults Elise (Lindsay Seim with Lin Shayeís voice oddly overdubbed) to investigate the problem. This prologue sews the seeds of the filmís bifurcated but ultimately intertwining narrative that splits time between another round of haunted house fare and the returning Specs and Tuckerís (Whannell and Angus Sampson) investigation into the 25 year old roots of this case. Joined by Eliseís old assistant Carl (Steve Coulter), the duo work to unravel the identity of the spirit haunting the Lambert family.
The back-and-forth narrative (which is aided by some admittedly clumsy transitions and flashbacks) gives the film sort of a Godfather II feel as viewers witness two generations of Lambert family hauntings. Perhaps appropriately, Insidious: Chapter Two is a weird gumbo of various sequels: obviously, thereís some residual Poltergeist stuff hanging about in the filmís setup (moving in with a grandmother is straight out of that filmís sequel), and the new focus on familial bloodshed (the spirit inhabiting Joshís body is compelling him to kill Renais and his children) is straight out of Amityville. But the best indicator of just how far out there this one goes? It somehow manages to evoke Back to the Future II of all movies, a brain-twisting turn that also reveals just how ambitious Wan and Whannell are here; I donít know that I ever expected a horror sequel to introduce time loops and paradoxes into its mythology, but here we are.
With the script engaging in so many narrative gymnastics, itís hard not to think of Saw, Whannell and Wanís other franchise that grew increasingly convoluted (albeit not completely under their watch). Insidious: Chapter Two doesnít get that tangled up, even if it isnít as graceful as its leaner predecessor, which was relatively straightforward haunted house fare before detouring into its unique brand of metaphysics. Not that he really needed to in the wake of The Conjuring, but Wan gets a chance to confirm those chops again here by crafting another round of jolts in the Lambert house. A few of them involve a haunted babyís toy, so itís almost like this film is in competition with Paranormal Activity 2 when it comes to turning banal, inanimate household objects into supernatural menaces. All jokes aside, Wilson does turn in a staggering performance as the possessed Josh; his tics and mannerisms are initially just subtle enough to give the impression that heís not quite himself, but his possession gradually grows more overt and sinister.
The other half of the film is less familiar territory, at least for this franchise. Anyone acquainted with slashers should be comfortable, though, as the history surrounding Joshís possessor is rife with gender confusion, overbearing matriarchs, and a slew of horrific murders. Yet another sequel Psycho II, serves as a reference point for a backstory that seems rich enough to carry its own slasher movie itself. Wan doesnít take this sequel all the way there because it never escapes the haunted house trappings: Specs and Tuckerís investigation has them poking around an abandoned hospital and a condemned house, both of which are crawling with unvanquished ghosts.
Some of this investigation is even relayed with a found footage aesthetic that gives Wan an opportunity to conjure up some effective bumps in the Blumhouse style; in fact, this one may have jolted me from my seat more often than The Conjuring. Insidious: Chapter Two isnít as overbearingly menacing as that film since Specks and Tucker bring more oddball levity as scrappy ghost-hunters who may or may not be in way over their heads (along with Shaye, they become the unexpected heart of the franchise, which is encouraging given this sequelís coda).
Which is not to say that Insidious: Chapter Two is all fun and games because Wanís penchant for building atmosphere and mood is on display throughout. After unwittingly ushering in an era of hyper-gory horror with Saw, heís refashioned himself as a modern master of ghost stories, and, this follow-up sometimes relies on clumsy, leaden exposition, itís undeniably spook. Its proceedings seem to be only a half-step removed from The Further, as ghosts and death hang in the air at every turn (even a TV is tuned into a late night showing of Carnival of Souls at one point).
When the film finally returns to that ethereal plane, itís not exactly the same demented funhouse but rather a bleak purgatory caught between time and space, a true Twilight Zone thatís unnerving in its desolation. Exploring this territory wasnít a popular move in the first film, but it provides an eerie landscape thatís ripe for a mythology that will no doubt continue to be mined with further outings. Wan might not be at the helm since heís insisted that this will be his final jaunt into The Further and the horror genre (thus dashing my dreams that Fast & Furious 7 take a Race With the Devil route), but I donít think any of us would be too mad if he broke his word. However, if he doesn't, let's hope that his successor will be similarly unafraid to keep Chapter Three as fresh as this follow-up, which stands a fine example of a sequel delivering more of the same without lapsing into a complete rehash. Buy it!
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