This review contains spoilers for the first Insidious movie.
Oh dear. Having turned in one of the best, scariest horror films in ages, James Wan is back for another bash at the haunted house genre – but this time, it’s kind of a disaster. Insidious: Chapter 2 suffers from the inevitable comparisons that’ll come from being released so soon after The Conjuring, but it’s hard to imagine a time when this film would’ve seemed okay. It’s dire.
The problem is that the plot is complicated, but not in a satisfying way. Pull at any of its strings and the whole lot unravels into a tangled mess of clichés and paradoxes. The story picks up where the last movie left off: all of the cast of the previous movie, including Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson, and writer Leigh Whannell, have returned, so the transition between the two is more or less seamless. Josh and his son Dalton have just got back from The Further, something nasty has followed them, and helpful psychic Elise has just been murdered. While the police investigate, the Lambert family moves into grandma Lorraine’s conveniently massive house – but since the ghosts are following the family rather than haunting the house, the supernatural shenanigans continue.
The thing is, because of how the last movie ended, we know who murdered Elise, and it’s not hard to figure out why. The first third of this film attempts to spin a mystery out of it, but there’s no ambiguity there at all; the audience knows what happened, and just has to wait for the characters to catch up. It’s kind of odd that they don’t catch on more quickly, since for them, no time has passed, and they’re all already in a state of nervous terror, jumping at every shadow. Watching them, we’re both ahead of them and behind: we know what’s going on, but we’re not scared, and that disconnection works against the film as it tries to draw us into the story.
There’s an added layer of awkwardness, too, because the story moves backwards as well as forwards. Through a series of flashbacks and dusty videotapes, we see scenes from Josh’s childhood which try to explain exactly why he and his family are at the centre of all this paranormal activity. (That phrase wasn’t an accident, either: this device is very similar to the way the first two Paranormal Activity sequels try to work backwards to explain what’s going on.) The thing is, the explanation is really daft. Like, really, really, eye-rollingly daft. It’s so silly it retroactively makes the first Insidious film make less sense, by poking at (but not fixing) a plot hole no one had really noticed.
And yeah, okay, the first film wasn’t perfect. Its mythology was murky, the characterisation was half-hearted, and structurally, it was all over the place, even switching protagonists halfway through. But it was scary enough, and funny enough, and stylish enough that, in the moment, you could ignore all of that. In the sequel, sadly, the flaws are magnified, and there’s nothing to save it. The production design is pretty cool, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. The jokes are too laboured to be funny. And, most damningly of all, it’s just not scary.
Sure, there are a few jump scares, and the wonderfully screechy violin score is back, but you’ll get as much of a jolt out of the title appearing on screen as you will from seeing any of its ghouls. The biggest mistake Insidious: Chapter 2 makes is swapping the first film’s freakishly demonic baddie with a generic ghost – visually, it makes the hauntings much duller, while the new spectre’s bizarro revenge motivation is familiar from a million other movies. And while the first film might have worn its influences on its sleeve, at least it didn’t resort to actually showing you the scene it was about to recreate before it did it.
If there’s one thing worth praising in this movie, it’s Patrick Wilson’s performance. He seems to have had fun, and he gets a couple of really brilliant moments as the film plods hopelessly towards its (anti)climax. But it’s hard to appreciate his work when everything that’s going on around him is so relentlessly terrible. It’s kind of heartbreaking, considering how far James Wan and Leigh Whannell seemed to have come from the dismal days of Dead Silence, but this totally unnecessary sequel should never have got further than a pitch meeting.
Insidious: Chapter 2 is out in UK cinemas on the 13th September.
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