Judge Erich Asperschlager goes bump in the night.
"Don't you dare!"
My first experience with director James Wan was this past summer's The Conjuring. It remains my most memorable moviegoing experience this year, from creepy beginning to creepier end. I liked it so much that I continued my Wan-o-thon, first in October with 2010's Insidious, an effective if uneven ghost story, and now with Insidious: Chapter 2, the director's second film of 2013 and a sequel of diminishing returns that fails to grasp what made the original so scary.
Facts of the Case
After the harrowing events of Insidious, the Lambert family is ready to move on. Too bad the spirit world isn't done with them. Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) is happy to have her son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) back, but she can tell there's something is wrong with her husband Josh (Patrick Wilson). Meanwhile, ghost hunters "Specs" (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) are trying to figure out who killed their friend and mentor Elise (Lin Shaye), an investigation that suggests Renai's suspicions and Elise's death are connected to the same murderous spirit.
Insidious: Chapter 2 is a better than average horror film almost entirely because of James Wan's talent as a director. Chapter 2 isn't as effective as the original, but it's still scary. Wan is great at combining camera movement with claustrophobic interiors. He pushes creepy imagery to the periphery, building dread from the feeling that something is hiding around the corner and just out of frame. It's the stuff that works so well in his previous films. The problem here is that the script doesn't give him enough chances to play with subtlety and suggestion. Too often, the film puts the threat in full focus, going out of its way to explain the rules and stakes. The first Insidious was about atmosphere. This is about information.
Where the first film keeps audiences off balance with a variety of spirits, spooks, and demons, the second focuses in on the one evil force who has been haunting the elder Lambert his entire life—a menacing old woman in a black wedding dress. Insidious's twist ending revealed that Josh's body had been hijacked by the Black Bride. Chapter 2 is largely a waiting game to see how long it takes Renai and her mother-in-law (played by Barbara Hershey) to discover the body-soul swap and stop evil Josh from killing them.
Insidious: Chapter 2 tries to recapture the creepiness of the original with creaking closet doors, ghostly piano, and a noisy toddler toy that moves by itself, but none of it is as creepy as similar moments in the first film. Chapter 2 ups the haunted house ante of Wan's previous films with no fewer than three spooky buildings, including an abandoned house and hospital. The cobweb-infested locations work on a basic horror level but the surface-level scares aren't enough to make up for a weak main story. The first movie worked because it focused on one family's response to a supernatural crisis. It preyed on parental fears about losing a child and the helplessness of fighting the unknown. In Chapter 2, the human characters are there mainly to be scared by things and to uncover information.
Wan and co-writer Leigh Whannell try to make up for the lackluster family plot with a side story where the ghost hunting assistants from the first film team up with Josh's mother and the deceased Elise's former partner to solve the mystery of the Black Bride. This Scooby-Doo half of the film has more traditional horror moments, although they come at the expense of too many "found footage"-style handheld shots and cheap jump scares. The mystery team plotline is also burdened with too much exposition as the quartet unravels the Bride's backstory.
The first Insidious worked because we knew so little about the otherworldly threat. The sequel goes out of its way to establish the who, what, how, and why of the ghost that's been haunting Josh his whole life. I can't think of a single horror movie that was made better by explaining everything. There are some interesting twists—or would be if they weren't so obvious—and the Black Bride is a cool villain, but there's little to differentiate her from countless forgettable slashers in countless forgettable horror flicks. In Insidious, she was a side character who played into the shocking final scene. Chapter 2 is Wan and Whannell trying to build an entire sequel from that twist ending. Even Rod Serling would have trouble with that.
Insidious: Chapter 2 arrives on Blu-ray with a sharp and moody 2.39:1 1080p transfer that pulls detail out of even the deepest shadows. Color is used effectively, from saturated tones to the stylized palette of the spirit realm. Whatever the film's weaknesses, production design and cinematography aren't among them. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is deceptively subdued, giving the filmmakers room to play nifty tricks with volume and directional effects.
This Blu-ray/DVD combo pack comes with a solid collection of bonus features, most of which are Blu-ray exclusive:
• "Peripheral Vision: Behind the Scenes" (15:22): This broad overview of the filmmaking process includes interviews with Wan and Whannell, the cast, and some of the crew. Though largely promotional, there are some interesting tidbits, including side-by-side footage comparing parallel scenes from the first movie and the sequel.
• "Ghostly Transformations" (7:19): This featurette looks at the makeup effects used to bring to life (death?) Mrs. Crane, the room full of sheet-covered corpses, the "He's got your baby" man, and Josh's transformation.
• "Leigh Whannell's Journal" (7:44): Video recorded on set throughout production by the writer-actor.
• "Haunted Hospital: On Location" (8:51): Los Angeles Paranormal Association members, Whannell, Wan, and Sampson talk about their creepy experiences scouting and shooting at the infamous Linda Vista Hospital.
• "Work in Progress: On Set Q&A" (23:30): Shot prior to the film's release, this Q&A features Barbara Hershey, Patrick Wilson, Leigh Whannell, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, producer Jason Blum, and director James Wan. It's a little strange to hear them tiptoe around spoilers, but the discussion is informative and Whannell is honest about the mixed response to the first film.
• "Insidious: Spectral Sightings" (12:19): A forgettable three-part web series featuring Specs, Tucker, and Elise investigating an abandoned house.
• DVD Copy
• Digital Copy
Insidious: Chapter 2 suffers from many of the problems that plague sequels and prequels. It treads familiar ground, over-explains, and devotes more screentime to the dead than the living. Director James Wan saves the film with his spooky signature style, but compared to 2013 flicks The Lords of Salem, You're Next, and Wan's own The Conjuring, it's another disappointing horror sequel.
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