A guided tour through a haunted house you have visited once too often
I’m a boy, I’m a boy,
But my mother won’t admit it.
I’m a boy, I’m a boy,
But if I say I am, I get it.
– from the song that should have been on the soundtrack, “I’m a Boy” by the Who
Those Paranormal Poltergeists are back; no, wait – I mean those Sinister Spooks are back; no, wait – I mean those Insidious Spectres are back, in the latest horror opus from Blumhouse Productions. Malefic forces once again display a remarkable aptitude for malevolently lurking in shadows, ominously opening doors, eerily activating toys, and judiciously picking just the right moment to jump out and say, “BOO!” However, their supernatural shtick is outwearing its welcome, and this sequel to INSIDIOUS (2010) has little to add to its predecessor, except back story – and story ain’t exactly the strength of these films, is it? Consequently, INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 feels like a guided tour through a haunted house you have visited once too often:you see the same old scares, and the guide keeps boring you with background details you don’t really need – or want – to know.
BACK STORY: WHEN MORE IS LESS
INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 falls prey to the dilemma that afflicts much of supernatural horror: the mysterious, the uncanny, and the unexplained provide a special frisson all their own, but the unexplained can also be dramatically frustrating; haunted house movies almost inevitably risk exorcising their own ghosts by explaining them away.* This problem is exacerbated in INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 2 because a sequel, by its very nature, is required to give us something we did not get before.
So now we learn that the haunting of the Lambert family did not begin with little Dalton (Ty Simkins) a few years ago; it began with his father Josh (Patrick Wilson in present day, Garrett Ryan in flashback), whose memories were wiped clean to erase the trauma. We also learn the identify of the ghost that Josh brought back with him at the end of INSIDIOUS and learn the murderous back story, involving enforced transvestism and a domineering mother, none of which really matters except to help pad the film out to feature length while avoiding the story that should be told: the story of how Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) reacts to the dawning realization that her husband is not, in fact, her husband.
In case you forgot [BRIEF SPOILER], unlike the father in “Little Girl Lost” (Richard Matheson’s episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE), Josh never made it back from the limbo world he entered to rescue the soul of his child; Josh’s spirit was left behind, replaced by that of the murderous “Bride in Black,” who turns out to be Parker (Tom Fitzpatrick), who killed only because his mother forced him to. The first act of the possessed Josh was to strangle psychic investigator Elise (Lin Shaye), because having found a foothold in the world of the flesh once again, the first thing a returning spirit wants to do is commit a crime that, in any logical universe, would put him behind bars for the rest of his unnatural life.
With the lamest of lip service, the police investigation of this murder is scuttled in the first reel of INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2; even though Josh was the only person in the room with Elise when she was murdered, and even though the house was filled with other people who could attest to this, the police feel they need something more, such as a match between Josh’s hands and the imprint on Elise’s throat. Inexplicably, a phone call from the investigating officer later tells us there is no match, even though nothing in the film indicates that the size of Josh’s hand is physically altered by the spirit possessing his body.
All of this is just an excuse to circumvent the ending of the previous film, so that the screenplay (by Leigh Whannell) can get the Lambert family back into a haunted house again. Things predictably start going bump in the night, but rather absurdly, possessed Josh manages to silence everyone’s fears on this score; for some reason, his wife and his mother (Barbar Hershey) are too stupid to see that there is something wrong with a man who can blithely dismiss the supernatural – after all the havoc it wrecked on their family in the previous film.
Fortunately, Elise’s late co-workers, Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) make contact with the other side and start to figure out that something is not right. This leads to a long trip down memory lane – long enough to blame Parker’s homicidal habits on Mother (yes, just like Norman Bates) without ever really making Mother out to be anything more than a caricature. When she finally appears in the flesh (metaphorically speaking), Danielle Bisutti plays the character with an over-enthusiastic relish more suitable to camp than horror, as if channeling the ghost of Joan Crawford – or more precisely, Faye Dunaway playing Crawford in MOMMY DEAREST. (As she slaps her son for refusing to act like a little girl, you have expect her to start yelling “Wire coat hangers!”)
By this time, Renai is kinda, sorta getting a clue that her husband is not really her husband anymore. It is symptomatic of the script’s problems that she must explain this in the dialogue to her mother-in-law, because we never really see the moment on screen. We are left to wonder what took her so long, and the more unseemly possibilities (i.e., living on intimate terms with a man who is in reality a total stranger) are ignored completely.
Eventually, a few modestly interesting ideas arise: Parker and his mother, far from being evil conspirators, are at odds, Parker hoping for a chance to live the “normal” life his mother denied him. Some of the haunting in the house is due not to Parker and his mother, but to Josh himself, who is waiting helplessly in limbo, hoping to reconnect with his family. And the spirit of Elise lurks somewhere nearby, no doubt waiting for an appropriate moment to intervene.
The last two elements at least provide a break from the current horror formula, in which only malevolent forces have any supernatural power. Unfortunately, the script never thinks through the implications, so the relative strengths of the dearly – and not so dearly – departed vary according to what would keep the good guys at a disadvantage: for example, Ghost Josh can only tinkle a piano keyboard, but Parker’s ghost mother can levitate objects and knock Renai unconscious. Why is Parker’s mother so much stronger? Because she’s evil, I guess.
That really is about as much thought as Whannell put into the story. We also learn that Josh’s body is decaying because of the dead soul inside it. His mother’s ghostly spirit tells him he can prevent this by killing the Lambert family, although why this should help is never explained. Is she lying? Or did the script just feel the need to motivate Possessed Josh’s final-reel shift from incognito intruder to homicidal maniac?
In any case, lke Jack Torrance in THE SHINING, Josh goes full-blown psycho for the final reel, threatening to murder his entire family (he uses a fire extinguisher rather than an ax to break through the door his wife has locked). In one of the film’s few nice touches, Dalton realizes that the astral projection that caused him so much trouble in the first film can enable him to make contact with his real father and bring him back to this earthly plane.
Meanwhile, in another moderately interesting bit, Elise and the real Josh are in limbo, seeking the answers that will exorcise Parker’s mother. Limbo, it seems is not only beyond space but also beyond time, allowing Josh to ask a crucial question of his boyhood self. Unfortunately, the answer doesn’t really reveal anything that will be crucial in defeating the evil spirit, but who’s keeping track?
At least INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 resists the temptation to deliver another last-minute twist that makes nonsense of what came before. However, it succumbs to the urge to dangle a thread intended to set up CHAPTER 3.
AESTHETICS AND ATMOSPHERE
As in INSIDIOUS and THE CONJURING, director James Wan shows an agile hand when it comes to manipulating the elements that go into making an atmospheric horror film. In this case, unfortunately, the familiar nature of the material and the script’s refusal to focus where it should, undermines the shudders, rendering one of Blumhouse Productions’s least effective fright films. As uninspired as the recent PARANORMAL ACTIVITY sequels have been, not to mention SINISTER and DARK SKIES, those films at least delivered some good scares, here and there.
But little of INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 matches the shivery sense of menace the infused its predecessor almost from beginning to end; in fact, you have to wait till midpoint for the first decent scare scene, when Specs and Tucker investigate Parker’s old childhood room – and find a child-size version of his spirit haunting the premises. (How this disembodied version of his spirit can be lurking in his old room, while Parker’s actual spirit is currently lodged in Parker’s body, is a question the film never bothers to address, because who cares?)
The cast is nice, but as hard as Patrick Wilson tries, he doesn’t quite have what it takes to suggest a sinister intelligence lurking behind a smiling facade: he’s at his most sinister, when showing up unexpectedly, framed in shadow; when he actually has to act scary, he’s okay at best.
Several of the characters appear in both old and young versions, with greater or lesser success. Older viewers probably know Barbara Hershey too well from her earlier work to buy Jocelin Donahue in flashbacks. Lindsay Seim, on the other hand, is so perfect that you immediately know she is the younger version of Elise, even if you don’t catch the name; the only problem here is a slight awkwardness about the dialogue, as if Seim were lip-synching to words recorded by Lin Shaye.
The emphasis on achieving scares with practical effects is welcome; for example, the afterlife is not some tour-de-force of CGI but essentially void, with faces and bodies appearing out of the darkness. But simply avoiding an over-used technique is not enough; you need to replace it with something else – something better. There was certainly potential here: INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 could have been an ominous exploration of ambiguity, if it had focused on the reactions of Josh’s wife and children as his strange, new behavior forced them to ask, “Is this the man we know and love, suffering from post-traumatic stress, or is it a demonic entity in his guise?”
WHAT I LEARNED
Evil ghosts are more powerful than good ghosts.
Baby monitors are scary.
Children’s toys are scary when they move by themselves in a dark room, especially when there is fog inside the room.
Even with a dead body and a houseful of likely suspects ranting about evil spirits, the police will not arrest the man who is obviously guilty.
The guilty party’s wife will be in denial about her husband’s guilt – which is almost understandable – but so will the murder victim’s ghost-hunting associates, who should – maybe, just maybe – consider the possibility of demonic possession.
THE FINAL TALLY
Lacking originality or inspiration, INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 is slow and tedious; even the occasional well-executed scare-scene is not enough to bring this tired old ghost back to life. Sad to say, the new INSIDIOUS is hideous.
On the CFQ Review Scale: a strong recommendation that you avoid this one.
- J-Horror avoids this problem by eschewing explanations – a sore point when those films get remade for Western audiences.
INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2. Blumhouse Productions: September 13, 2013. 105 minutes, PG-13. Directed by James Wan. Written by Leigh Whannell. Cast: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, Barbara Hershey, Steve Coulter, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Andrew Astor, Hank Harris, Jocelin Donahue, Lindsay Seim, Danielle Bisutti, Tyler Griffin, Garrett Ryan, Tom Fitzpatrick.