"Insidious: Chapter 2" Builds Slowly, Soars In Third Act

It’s been a prolific year for writer-director James Wan. “Insidious: Chapter 2” is his second release in as many months, “The Conjuring” – a massive box office hit – preceding it by a mere eight weeks. And that’s not to mention the runaway success of the original “Insidious” two short years ago. It’s this run of films that’s landed him in the director’s chair for the seventh installment of the wildly popular “Fast And Furious” series, and his ceiling as a mainstream filmmaker is nowhere in sight. No, let’s not blame him for the glut of regrettable “Saw” sequels. His original was one of the better genre pics of the 2000s.

Wan has his shortcomings, as all but the best do, but “Insidious: Chapter 2” cleverly expands upon its predecessor without repeating itself – a feat that most horror sequels don’t even attempt. The screenplay – written by Wan’s usual partner in crime, Leigh Whannell – takes its time in traipsing through the prerequisite haunted house movie tropes (lots of creaking doors), building awfully slowly, but the payoff is worth it, as the picture eventually coalesces into a savvy bit of labyrinthine horror.

As “Chapter 2” is a direct continuation of the original, a working knowledge of that film is a must. Newbies need not apply – although, “Insidious” is essential viewing for serious horror fans. Thusly, spoilers for the original will be rampant here. You’ve been warned.

Previously on “Insidious” – Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) was able to rescue his son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), from “The Further,” but never came back himself, his body overtaken by an evil spirit that proceeded to murder Elise (Lin Shaye), the family’s kindly old medium. In beginning with a flashback, “Chapter 2” is able to function as both a prequel and a sequel, and how the film’s past and present ultimately intersect is the picture’s greatest accomplishment.

The aforementioned prologue features a younger Elise (Lindsay Seim) interviewing a pre-adolescent Josh, a young man deeply troubled by his ability to visit the spirit world. Soon we’re back to the present, in which Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) is being interviewed about her husband’s alleged murder. The scene features a simple but memorable long zoom, a distant Renai seemingly consumed by darkness in a dimly lit room. It’s one of many small flourishes that make up for the script’s plethora of banal dialogue.

While Josh is a prime suspect in Elise’s murder, he (inexplicably) hasn’t been taken into custody, and the Lamberts have moved in with Josh’s mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey). Much of the first hour is spent on atmosphere and jump scares that fail to live up to those of the original, but Wilson’s transformation from loving father to ghoulish miscreant is mostly interesting and the “ghostbusters” subplot (once again featuring Whannell and Angus Sampson as comic relief) actually dovetails nicely with the narrative this time around.

Narratively speaking, many of the story beats don’t make much sense at first glance – especially when it comes to a serial killer named Parker Crane – but before things spiral out of control, Wan reins in the puzzle pieces, all of which, in time, fit together quite nicely. The mystery element of the story doesn’t entirely pay off, but it allows for the film to revisit the impeccable art design of “The Further” and gracefully resurrect one or two characters that might not have otherwise found a purpose in “Chapter 2.”

But it’s the screenplay’s salient collision of past and present that sets the film apart from most horror sequels, skillfully retconning certain elements of the original film. With the element of discovery inherently missing from any follow-up, Wan and Whannell masterfully tweak what we thought we knew about the “Insidious” universe without tarnishing it.

In the end, what “Chapter 2” lacks in scares, it makes up for in inventiveness, and its surprisingly sweet conclusion is a fitting cap on a pretty accomplished pair of fright flicks. Competent horror has been in short supply in recent years, so having “Insidious” and now a solid companion piece is something worth celebrating – now more than ever that Wan has decided to move on from the genre. Here’s hoping he returns one day – even wiser than before.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: September 13, 2013
Studio: FilmDistrict
Director: James Wan
Screenwriter: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Danielle Bisutti, Michael James Grise, Lindsay Seim
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of terror and violence, and thematic elements)