Insidious: Chapter 2 picks up right where chapter 1 ended, with Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) discovering the corpse of murdered medium Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), with her husband Josh Lambert seemingly the culprit. After a police investigation fails to connect the fingerprints that strangled Elise to Josh, the Lamberts are set free to return to life as normal – only normality never comes, as more supernatural occurrences begin to plague Renai and her once-comatose son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), with Josh oblivious to it all in his militant insistence that the family get back to normal.
Meanwhile, Elise’s former assistants Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) recruit a veteran medium named Carl (Steve Coulter) to help contact their former mentor and solve the case of who murdered her. However, as the team digs into Elise’s death, they quickly find connections to Josh Lambert and the entities haunting him, getting closer to a dark truth that spans time and space, life and death.
James Wan is, by now, an established name in the horror genre, and he’s enjoyed recent horror movie success thanks to his summer hit The Conjuring. However, Insidious was a much more divisive movie in terms of fan reception, and that stigma – combined with high expectations based on Wan’s other 2013 horror entry – are likely going to challenge Insidious: Chapter 2 in regards to viewer satisfaction. Harder still will be the adjustment as viewers realize that Wan has less interest and re-heating old Insidious ghost-story leftovers, and instead uses the sequel to truly expanded the mythos of his characters and world, ultimately creating something that is more akin to The Shining.
While Chapter 2 does include a few effectively creepy signature Wan scare sequences, the majority of the film is dedicated to laying out a two-handed narrative (once again co-written by Wan and Whannell). On the one hand we get a Shining-style psychological thriller centered on the Lambert household; on the other hand, a supernatural horror-mystery revolving around Elise’s team and their investigation into the history of the ghostly old woman who killed Elise.
Whether or not those two plot threads appease fan expectations, Wan and Whannell do an effective job of using the first film to create an intriguing and tense (if not scary) second chapter, which does what so many other “Chapter 2″ pieces fail to: expand upon a self-contained story in an intriguing and smart way, making creative and logical use of all the various elements of the first film while tweaking and evolving those ideas in new ways. Taken altogether, Insidious parts 1&2 form a complete unbroken story whose various threads weave together into a logical and cohesive whole – one that even offers a few twists, and juggles powder keg plot devices like time-travel with a clarity and focus that is impressive. Just seeing the whole saga come together is worth a theater ticket price – a rarity in horror movie storytelling.
Wan’s directorial imagination is as keen as ever – even when it’s not being used to terrify at rapid-fire pace. The changed setting (now located in Josh’s childhood home) is more ominous, the visual palette is more dismal and dreary – and as stated, there are still those set pieces and sequences throughout the film that will give you chills. It may be fewer chills than you want or expect from a horror film like this, but they’re memorable enough to make the overall experience worthwhile.
The cast are given new angles and arcs to play out in this second chapter. Without spoiling anything, Wan’s “muse” Patrick Wilson is given something much more dynamic than his usual straight-man role and does fairly well with it – even if he fails to reach that Nicholson “Jack Torrance” level of slow-burn mania. Byrne, by comparison, does a better Shelly Duvall, blending matriarchal concern with wide-eyed naiveté – though that sort of character feels a bit outdated in modern context.
Supporting characters like young Dalton (Simpkins) Josh’s mom Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), and ghost-hunters Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Sampson) are given expanded roles and all manage to create more interesting and essential characters than we saw in the first film. Coulter quickly and concisely establishes Carl as a solid and likable exposition tool, and Lin Shaye (Something About Mary) is a welcome sight again, even in her small cameo role.
As stated, by the time the third act of the film rolls around – and Wan truly goes for broke with his Shining homage - we’re left with a movie that has plenty of narrative meat and good tension – but not that many scares, per se. Then again, horror movie scares are always a subjective (and very divisive) thing, so maybe it’s for the best that Wan and Co. focus instead on providing us with a fun ride of intrigue and suspense, instead of trying emphasize the horror build-up/pay-off catharsis. Insidious: Chapter 2 has a lot of moving parts, and on the whole they are arranged into a proper and fitting closing arc to one of the more memorable horror movie tales of the last few years.
Is it the next Conjuring? No. But even while working at a slightly lower level, Wan’s prowess as a storyteller and director in this more interesting and well-plotted second chapter may ironically end up luring in those who weren’t even onboard with Insidious in the first place. Proof positive that there is benefit in not making your “Part 2″ a “Part 1 Redux.”
Kofi Outlaw blogs at Screen Rant.