By Preston Wilder
When we last left the Lambert family … well, who knows what they were up to. Insidious wasn’t that long ago (2010) but the details of all these horror franchises are hard to keep straight (producer Oren Peli is also the man behind another horror franchise, Paranormal Activity). Fortunately, Insidious: Chapter 2 foresees that problem and kicks off with a cop taking a statement from Renai (Rose Byrne), thereby jogging our memory about the events of the first film. Renai and husband Josh (Patrick Wilson) were deeply troubled when their son Dalton fell into a kind of coma, after which strange things started happening around their home – and kept happening, even after they moved – but eventually Josh, with the help of a psychic named Elise (Lin Shaye), travelled to a “spirit realm” called “the Further” where he found Dalton and returned him to the world of the living. Is it all coming back to you now? OK, you’re good to go. Thanks for clearing that up, Chapter 2.
Then again, it wouldn’t have mattered all that much if the plot had remained inscrutable. Horror is a very forgiving genre, allowing all kinds of confusion and narrative incompetence as long as the film delivers (a) shocks and (b) atmosphere – and Insidious: Chapter 2 bears this out, going increasingly nuts in a way that’s both silly and rewarding. Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell are the team who made the first Saw (though not the sequels) – and this has a similar trajectory, starting off relatively straightforward then piling on the weirdness to end somewhere else altogether.
Initially, it’s a haunted-house movie. The happy family are back together – but it soon becomes clear that whatever ‘followed’ Dalton is still around, especially when they move into Grandma’s house where Josh grew up as a psychic little boy. The piano plays by itself, then Renai runs upstairs to find the baby lying on the floor (babies in jeopardy are an Oren Peli trademark). Maybe she fell out of the crib, shrugs Josh. “What is wrong with you?” replies Renai, unable to believe that he’d offer a rational explanation after all they’ve been through. “I just want us to move on,” he says – but is Josh simply in denial, or is it something more sinister?
No prizes for guessing the answer, especially when Mr. Wilson, with his tight smile and pale sallow face, has always seemed miscast as the good guy – and the ghosts keep coming, first a girl in a bridal gown then a serial killer with a domineering mother and serious gender issues. They float around ethereally, then become more brazen. One sings ‘Row, row, row your boat’ then disappears with a little wave. Another (or the same one?) shouts “Don’t you dare!” at Renai, then actually slaps her. Meanwhile Josh hears voices, and pulls out his own tooth. Turns out he’s trapped in the Further, his body taken over by the serial killer who plans violent deaths for the whole family.
Is that it? Not by a long shot. By the time we get to the little boy who’s been dressed like a little girl and forced to recite “My name is Marilyn” over and over, you’ll know Insidious: Chapter 2 has gone off the deep end – then again, horror is a genre (like comedy) where increasing hysteria isn’t necessarily fatal. Wan can be a very controlled director (as in The Conjuring) but he goes deliberately slack here, sliding into non sequitur: at one point we cut to a five-second shot of Josh pounding on the piano and yelling “Heeeelp!” – then simply cut to something else. Whannell, meanwhile, gets a co-starring role as one of the geeky ghostbusters from the first film (they’re called Specs and Tucker, and play a variation on Scissors/Rock/Paper – called Hunter/Ninja/Bear – that has to be seen to be believed), and doesn’t seem too ashamed of his often-terrible dialogue. Josh: “You have to relax.” Renai: “I can’t relax! There’s ghosts everywhere!”
I was mixed on Insidious: Chapter 2 for a long time – but the film gets to you, just by being bold and imaginative. Some of it is lame, or predictable, or even unintentionally funny (when the psychic asks “Are you here?” and the ghost makes the whole room go haywire – lights switching off, TV showing static – I was reminded of Steve Martin in The Man With Two Brains: “Give me a sign. Just any kind of sign”), but it’s not just your formula horror; the Further has a David Lynchian dwarf, for crying out loud! This is not a good film, but I appreciate the weirdness. As for the plot … well, who remembers plot in a horror movie?
DIRECTED BY James Wan
STARRING Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey
US 2013 106 mins.