Insidious (2011) was a refreshing gearshift from horror director James Wan and screenwriter/actor Leigh Whannell. The pair let the grimy and slapdash Saw series loose upon the scary-movie landscape, only to chase it away with the deliberate pacing and careful compositions of Insidious’ ghost story about a comatose child coveted by evil spirits.
Wan followed Insidious with two more haunted-house pictures starring Patrick Wilson: this summer’s critically acclaimed smash hit The Conjuring, and now, right on its heels, Insidious: Chapter 2. In light of The Conjuring’s success, the first Insidious now looks both underappreciated (Wan did it there first, on a smaller budget, and without religious overtones) and inconsequential (it’s like a sillier dry-run for the later movie). Similarly, this sequel feels like both a good-faith effort to further develop the first film’s story and a hasty continuation no one realized The Conjuring would render irrelevant.
Wan revives The Conjuring’s period-horror flourishes with ’80s-set flashbacks that fill in all of the unnecessary details of the Insidious-verse. The follow-up splits up the first film’s cast into two teams: Barbara Hershey, as Wilson’s mother, leads an investigation into her son’s haunted past with the help of paranormal investigators who also provide middling comic relief. Meanwhile, Wilson himself has just returned from saving his son in the “Further,” a netherworld between life and death—and his wife Rose Byrne begins to suspect that he’s come back not quite right.
Wilson, surely the Jimmy Stewart of suburban hauntings to Wan’s carnie-barker Hitchcock, has displayed remarkable range in his horror career. He and Byrne make a dream domestic-horror couple; he usually looks stricken with guilt, and she usually looks just plain stricken. Here, Wilson flips his wheelhouse role from the first Insidious—the slightly ineffectual yet well-meaning husband—into a figure of restless menace. One memorable shot frames his darkened figure against a doorway, blocking out natural light, and the movie uses subtle make-up effects to mess with Wilson’s handsome face.
The techniques of the movie, then, are sound. Wan still moves his camera and composes his shots with a patience that belies his dank Saw origins. But the cinematography isn’t as virtuosic this time around—or maybe there’s just a limit on how many unbroken shots traveling down a dark hallway can summon the requisite dread. The movie also undermines its own technical grace with ugly words; characters in Whannell/Wan screenplays speak with the first-draft expository bluntness of a cheap ’50s thriller, letting the characters step on some of the best reveals.
While the climactic scenes set within the Further were a weak spot of the original, the complicated mechanics of this netherworld (and how it threads into our world) provide some of the sequel’s cleverest elaborations. Chapter 2’s Further is a tricky mélange of memory, dreams, ghosts, and time travel—almost like something out of Terry Gilliam or Charlie Kaufman, though Wan and Whannell never push it that far. They could have distinguished their sequel by going crazier; instead, the movie’s best and weirdest moments are overpowered by respectability.