Silver Screen: Insidious: Chapter Two ***
James Wan’s Saw tapped into the tortured, torture-y zeitgeist of the 2000s, and its surprise success blazed a bloody trail for an era of grim, gory horror. The resulting glut of splatterfests created the perfect marketplace for Paranormal Activity, which went against the trend and reintroduced good, old-fashioned scares-- squeaking doors, shadows, and the occasional levitating object.
It’s a pleasant reversal of fortune. The recent crop of haunted-house movies has been solid, if somewhat indistinguishable. That makes Insidious: Chapter Two slightly difficult to follow, not just because it indulges in a few too many callbacks to the first film, but because the details of its story become entangled with the particulars of so many similar movies.
In the opening scene, a paranormal investigator introduces herself to a young girl named Lorraine-- but wasn’t Lorraine the name of the paranormal investigator in the other horror movie costarring Patrick Wilson from earlier this year, The Conjuring, which was also directed by James Wan? There was a demon in The Conjuring-- was a demon also the culprit in the first Insidious as well, or was that just Paranormal Activity? And what about all those home movies of families getting killed? (No, wait, that was Sinister.)
Insidious: Chapter Two is perhaps the most difficult to differentiate of all these movies, in part because it’s such a hodgepodge of horror tropes. In addition to the standard-issue haunted-house shenanigans, there’s a kid with special powers and a crazy dad right out of The Shining, a team of professional demon-expellers that play like the Marx Brothers version of The Exorcist’s exorcisers, and healthy dose of Blair Witch Project/Paranormal Activity-style found footage. We’re just a demonic doll and a guy in a hockey mask away from a full-scale Halloween party.
But though Insidious: Chapter Two bundles together too many disparate ideas to form anything like a coherent, compelling story, it’s well-executed enough to be thoroughly entertaining throughout.
All you need to know is this: In the first movie, young parents Josh and Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) discovered that the source of their supernatural troubles was the ability of their young son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) to psychically travel to the Further, a limbo-land between the living and the dead. Josh ultimately retrieved the boy from the netherworld, but the cost was the life of paranormal investigator Elise (Lin Shaye).
The police are remarkably unconcerned with Elise’s murder at the beginning of Insidious: Chapter Two, which picks up right where the story left off. The investigator is doubtful of Renai’s supernatural alibi, but the whole plotline is improbably dropped. The family’s troubles are far from over, however, as a demon has followed Josh back from the Further and possessed his body. The haunted happenings continue at the home of Josh’s mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), who curiously neglects to mention that as a child Josh could cross over into the Further, and was subsequently so menaced by spirits that she had him hypnotized to remove his ability and make him forget about the entire incident. To save her family, Renai must enlist the help of a team of experts led by Elise’s former ghost-hunting partner, Carl (Steve Coulter, who, just for confusion’s sake, was also in The Conjuring).
Director James Wan returns to helm the sequel to the first Insidious, which was his first stab at a haunted-house picture. Wan directed only the first-- and best-- installment of Saw, but his subsequent scary movies have all favored the atmospheric over the visceral. Wan isn’t a great director; his stories fail to frighten more substantially and psychologically as did those of Kubrick, Carpenter, Polanski, or Cronenberg. That said, he’s an excellent craftsman and technician, which is no backhanded compliment. He generates terrific, spooky atmosphere with slow camera movements, subtly unsettling set designs, and a great sense of timing. Not many people can engineer a better scare-- and the resulting delightful jolt of adrenaline-- but the horror remains on the surface level. That distinction is briefly meaningless, however... at least while you’re sitting, watching, in the dark.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.