Pianos play without anyone sitting at the keys. Babies’ toys keep moving on their own. People use the phrase "astral projection" with a straight face, and the violins on the soundtrack are violently spazzing out like there’s a stubborn bee perched on each of their bows. Yep, it must be time for a new "Insidious" film.
The first chapter – about a young family trying to stave off otherworldly ghosts and demons from possessing their young, comatose son – was a surprise hit for newbie distributor FilmDistrict, making $54 million back in 2011 from a $1.5 million budget. And deservedly so. "Insidious" marked a much-appreciated step away from the world of torture porn and found footage gimmicks, and back toward classic bump-in-the-night tactics done right.
Part one’s creative duo, writer Leigh Whannell and current horror golden boy director James Wan (who, for maximum irony points, were also behind the original "Saw"), have returned for "Insidious: Chapter 2." So have Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson and the rest of the effective cast of the first film. The gang’s all here and in fine frightening form, but the sequel seems just a little … off, like it’s been oh-so-subtly possessed by the ghost of a lesser horror flick.
After a quick flashback, "Chapter 2" picks up where the last film’s final act left off. The family is attempting to get back to a normal life with Josh’s knowing mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) and her equally creepy house. And this being a horror movie, it’s going poorly. When she’s not being pestered by phantom pianos and the baby’s chirpy toys, wife Renai (Byrne) sees mysterious figures wandering through the living room.
Meanwhile, husband Josh (Wilson) keeps talking to himself in the mirror and looks like he’s slowly transforming into a corpse. But I’m sure that’s nothing to worry about.
While Renai fends off vicious backhanded slaps from the ominous spectre of the day, the kooky paranormal aids of the first film (Angus Sampson and Whannell) and an old friend (Steve Coulter) who uses magical Boggle dice to communicate with spirits investigate what’s menacing the poor Lambert clan. As it turns out, Renai, it’s not the house that’s haunted. It’s your husband.
For fans of the first "Insidious," the scariest part of that plot synopsis has nothing to do with ghosts. It’s the line "picks up where the last film’s final act left off." For all the good "Insidious" does, the last third is a big, loud, silly mess with a hoofed Darth Maul running on the walls and the aforementioned straight-faced talk of astral projection. It’s still fairly intense, but that’s a little due to Wan’s creepy direction and a lot due to the goodwill earned from the great first 60 minutes or so.
Unfortunately, the letdown hasn’t let up, as "Insidious: Chapter 2" takes all the wrong notes from the first ghost-around. It’s louder and campier. There’s more convoluted mythology this time, both about Josh’s early astral projecting days, the spirit world and the evil ghost itself. The story seems crowded with characters and ghost investigations, despite the fact that we’ve only added one new person to the mix.
It seems Whannell (and Wan, who gets a story credit) didn’t abandon all of their excesses from the "Saw" franchise, as there’s even an attempt to tinker with the "Insidious" timeline and retcon the two films together. It would be interesting if it didn’t seem to rip a gigantic plot hole into what was once an enjoyably neat and tidy ghost story.
Instead of focusing on tying our nerves into knots, the script’s energies seem focused on knotting the story. Whannell attempts to bring more plot, intrigue and otherworldly logic to the Lamberts’ haunting, but in the end, he does the opposite.
The story seems out of his control, carrying him to schlocky material like a cross-dressing murderer ghost, an overbearing ghost mother who’s one wire hanger away from going full Joan Crawford and a haunted out-of-commission hospital with a secret tomb that’s somehow gone unnoticed. There’s even a little bit of found footage thrown into the unwieldy, increasingly silly mix.
Here’s the weird thing, though. Despite the uptick in loud, rampant schlock, "Insidious: Chapter 2" is still a creepy movie. Quite creepy, actually. Wan’s old-fashioned sense of eerie mood and tension still manages to deliver plenty of freak-outs. One particular moment – a scream from Mommie Dearest that drains the color from the scene and replaces it with dark, oozing dread – sent ice down my back.
Byrne is certainly a well above-average scream queen, and even with an expanded role, the dweeby rivalry between Sampson and Whannell remains welcome comic relief. Wilson, however, is the stand-out. He creepily embraces the opportunity to flip his usual modest everyman role on its head and go chillingly sinister a la "The Shining." His sneering smile – on full display during an impressively tense confrontation with Coulter’s supernatural Boggle player – makes him a worthy disciple of Jack Torrance. All work and no astral projection make Josh a dull boy.
But while "Insidious: Chapter 2" is intense, it’s also strangely unsatisfying. It’s an unstable recipe with too many half-baked, silly ingredients on the plate and too many ghosts in the kitchen. Here’s to an exorcism.
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