There’s an old proverb that states, if you have to explain the joke, it’s no longer funny. One could easily make a parallel argument about Insidious: Chapter 2. The original film by Saw-experts James Wan and Leigh Whannell was a malevolent hoot, a solid throwback horror film which tossed the entirety of the genre at the viewer in the hopes of chilling their spines and disturbing their sleep. It certainly achieved that goal. Wan and Whannell even invented a new paranormal realm, a fog-shrouded version of reality known as The Further, as part of their mythos.
Now, the creative duo are back and trying to explain how the Lambert Family — father Josh (Patrick Wilson), mother Renai (Rose Byrne), and their children Dalton (Ty Simpkins), Foster (Andrew Astor), and a baby daughter — first became the targets of unholy forces bent on ripping the fabric between our world and the afterlife, and like the aforementioned maxim, in the explanation comes part of this sequel’s minor problems.
We start off seeing how a young Josh is targeted for torment by the infamous “Bride in Black” and his connection to the supernatural realm explored by two ghost hunters, Elise Rainer (Lin Shaye) and her friend Carl (Steve Coulter). We then fast forward to the events immediately after the first film. The police are investigating Elise’s death (which occurred during the final showdown in the Lambert house), and all signs point to a clearly unsettled Josh.
Initially believing the hauntings have stopped, Renai and her mother-in-law Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) try to go on with life. Then they start seeing and hearing things that indicate the scares are far from over. Eventually, Carl returns to pick up where his late friend left off, and he learns that Josh may not be who he says he is, and that someone named Parker Crane may be the key to unraveling this particularly disturbing series of events.
There is no denying James Wan’s ability to build dread. With the use of careful camera angles, insinuation and inference, the random late night noises, shadows, and an oppressive sense of possible danger, he develops a thick foundation of fear which almost always pays off in a shock, a scare, or a scream. It’s like watching a great opera diva tackle a difficult aria. Achieving a sense of terror in 2013’s cynical circumstances is nearly impossible, yet as Wan has proven — just revisit The Conjuring to see how assured his technique is — he is more than capable of handling the careful construction, layer by layer, of seemingly innocuous elements that will eventually explode into a vision of undeniable fear.
That being said, Insidious: Chapter 2, diminishes some of its strategies (slightly) by introducing Parker Crane, his clearly crazy mother, and these restless spirits’ reasons for lashing out from the beyond. By providing a reason, by removing the audience’s imagination from the mix, the movie loses a bit of its magic. It’s still a thrilling nailbiter, a film best experienced through the spaces between your fingers as you cover your face in fear, but with answer to “why?” comes as a bit of a letdown. The good news is the entire cast understands the nature of this particular beast and deliver performances that simultaneously put us at ease and at the edge of our seats. They are so in sync with Wan’s approach that the result reinvigorates the once staid old-school horror movie motif while providing the mandatory shivers.
By establishing the who and what of Parker Crane, Insidious: Chapter 2 leaves the entirety of The Further and the red-faced demon of the previous film for a future entry. In fact, you could guess that based on the choice of title. If, indeed, there is more Insidious on the horizon, horror fans should rejoice. Before this series, traditional terror was considered antiquated. With Wan behind the lens, it’s back with a malevolent vengeance.