Written by: Leigh Whannell, based on a story by James Wan & Leigh Whannell
Directed by: James Wan
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, Barbara Hershey
I love Insidious. Whether or not you like the shift in the third act, the first two are utterly terrifying, and anyone who says otherwise is a dirty stupid liar. I've seen it probably eight times or more, and was lucky enough to see it on the big screen again just before Insidious: Chapter 2 (henceforth to be referred to as Insidious 2, because I'm lazy). It didn't lose much of its power in the theater a second time. Insidious was at its core a remake of Poltergeist.
The problem is, Insidious played on your expectations--both in the plot and in specific beats. You weren't told what was happening until at least halfway through. Seeing it in the theater a second time, I even noticed other red herrings that I didn't catch on to before. With Insidious 2, you know what's happening before it even starts. It picks up right where the first film left off. While it attempts to sow some seeds of doubt that what you've seen happen is wrong, they are quickly dissolved. It did do something clever where it twists itself back on the original film. It works fairly well, but it's a trick I can't help but feel like I've seen done before and better.
But James Wan isn't known for weaving clever tales. He is a scaresmith. At that, mind you, he is absolutely one of the best. Wan uses a lot of his old tricks here: creepy dolls, looong zooms, hiding the ghost in the scene before calling attention to it. However, while they all certainly work here, I can't recall any specific moments that will keep me up all night. Again, some of the most effective scares in Insidious played on your expectations. You always knew where the scares in Insidious 2 were going, just not how long they would take to get there. The atmosphere is all there. At one point we even travel to an abandoned Catholic hospital, where some of the filmwork switches to found-footage-type handheld shots. These don't quite pay off the way you think they will, but they do provide a creepy enough place to be.
The comic relief of the first film--the ghost-hunting nerd duo played by writer Leigh Whannel and Angus Sampson--return for more. Except this time with the ham cranked up to eleven. They're brought in from the very beginning, providing relief for tension that hasn't been built yet, and stick around until the very end. Even one of the characters onscreen becomes annoyed with their bumbling ways. Likable as they are, I can't disagree.
In keeping with that theme, the fabulous Lin Shaye, the Zelda Rubinstein to Insidious' Poltergeist, also returns, but feels underused. In the first film she showed an ability to go from warm, sweet, "welcome to the neighborhood, I baked you cookies!" matron, to an intense, icy, almost seething harbinger of dread...and make that turn on a dime. In Insidious 2 we start off squarely in the Uncanny Valley, with Lin (actually pretty well) de-aged 30 years, and all of her dialogue dubbed in. In the rest of the film, her part feels flat, only providing a bit of WD40 for the plot to move around with. It isn't until the very end that we get that classic Lin Shaye performance, and by then the context cheapens it.
Joseph Bishara's spectacular score from the original film also returns. I'm sure most of the music was written for this sequel, but it integrates seamlessly enough with the themes of the original, that you wouldn't know it.
Insidious felt like the film Wan and Whannel got to make once they got away from the Saw series. Saw 2 felt like the film they had to inevitably make because of the success of Saw 1, and Insidious 2 doesn't feel terribly far from that, including leaving a gratuitously open end for more films. If you liked Insidious for more than just the scares, if you got into the characters, the mythology, and the weird turn it took into a fantasy film, then this sequel is far from bad. I enjoyed it as a continuation--the second and third acts for the Lambert family story. Just know it's a supernatural thriller, not a horror flick. If you want the pants-ruining haunted house experience Insidious was, rent a theater and play the original film for a hundred or so of your friends. Or, you know, just go see The Conjuring again.
Also, does anyone wanna explain to me how this family can afford to move into three humongous and gorgeous old homes within a year, on his teacher's salary plus whatever she makes on her shitty adult contemporary music?!?