James Wan recently announced his retirement from horror cinema, citing as his principal motivator the fear of being typecast as a scary movie director. Already, he’s set to fill Justin Lin’s gargantuan shoes on the Fast and Furious series, and I couldn’t be more excited for the guy. At the same time, though, I feel sad for the genre, which may have lost one of its most influential voices. I didn’t much care for Saw (2004), but there’s no denying its impact on modern thrillers. More to the point, Wan refused to rest on his torture porn laurels, updating the classical ghost story for a new generation of gore hounds. The man keeps challenging himself and coming up with new ideas.
Consider his follow-up to Insidious (2011), bluntly titled Insidious: Chapter 2. When putting together a sequel, horror directors typically have to choose between repeating the same story with a new set of victims or repeating the same story with a new monster. Wan opts for door number three: extending the same story so as to add new depths to the events and characters of the previous film. Dead or alive, every cast member returns (except for Darth Maul), which works out great, seeing as the series left off with Josh (Patrick Wilson) getting possessed and killing his medium Elise (Lin Shaye). I’m relieved that’s not where their story ends.
Rather than resolve this perfunctory cliffhanger in the opening sequence like in Resident Evil: Retribution (2012) or shove it under the carpet as in Prom Night III: The Last Kiss (1990), Insidious: Chapter 2 uses the possession as its main premise, with the malevolent spirit resuming Josh’s life unbeknownst to his wife Renai. This leaves actress Rose Byrne with the thankless task of not looking like a complete moron as her character spends two thirds of the runtime catching up to the audience. However, as Alfred Hitchcock explained, one doesn’t generate suspense from detonating a bomb in the dining room but from showing it ticking while everyone’s going about their meal.
Besides, screenwriter Leigh Whannell piques our curiosity early on by setting up a new mystery surrounding our possessed hero’s initial ordeal with the bride in black. Flashing three decades back, Insidious: Chapter 2 begins with a ten-year-old Josh (Garrett Ryan) pointing the way to an invisible entity while in trance. Video footage found in present day reveals that the boy’s mysterious visitor looks suspiciously like his older self, prompting paranormal investigators Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) to investigate the original case with the help of Elise’s former colleague, Carl (Steve Coulter).
For the most part, this means long treks through abandoned mansions, some uninspired nonsense about a gender-confused serial killer, and lots of stuff going bump in the night. We’re never bored, though, owing to Wan’s impeccable timing, the way he paces every jump scare in Insidious: Chapter 2 just slightly out of our expectations. It also helps that Specs and Tucker are given something to do this time around, mitigating their slapstick nature, and that most of the drama is filtered through the eyes of Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), who, as Josh’s mom, has got a genuine stake in the matter.
The two threads don’t merge until the final act, when old allies return to face off against the monster in the land of the dead. As established in Insidious, the “further” looks like crap or, to be more precise, a bad community play wherein the dry ice machine is straining the generator so as to make the lights flicker in and out. It’s unfortunate because Insidious: Chapter 2 adds an interesting new dimension to the proceedings and uses it to redefine events from the first movie in a rather neat way. You’ll find yourself exclaiming like Elise, “So that’s what this was about!”
On the subject of our favourite medium, Lindsay Seim does a phenomenal job incarnating young Elise in the opening sequence, evoking all of Lin Shaye’s charm and charisma while still making the role her own. In fact, her debonair smile and mannered composure had me begging for a spinoff or three starring this offbeat woman and her smitten friend Carl. If the closing cliffhanger in Insidious: Chapter 2 serves as any indication, I may get my wish. Let’s just hope the next director can fill James Wan’s shoes.