In the 2011 hit Insidious, Renai and Josh Lambert’s happy family home became a living hell once their young son fell into a coma that tapped him into a realm of deranged ghosts known as The Further. As it ended on a nerve-rattling cliffhanger, a sequel to the James Wan-directed film was practically demanded. Wan has obliged, reteaming with screenwriter Leigh Whannell to reveal what happens next to the Lamberts in a winding story that travels back to Josh’s childhood and gives a gruesome origin to the mysterious witchy woman from the first film.
At the end of the last film, paranormal investigator Elise Rainier was murdered by Josh (Patrick Wilson) after battling an evil entity for the body and soul of his son Dalton. Then Renai (Rose Byrne) discovered Elise’s corpse and was forced to face the possibility that her husband may be possessed. Just then, Insidious cut to black. Chapter Two picks with Renai and Josh dealing with the aftermath of Elise’s death. A murder investigation is underway, and under questioning Renai is asked if she trusts her husband-- an issue that has plagued her thanks to Josh's strange behavior. The Lamberts have moved into the home of Josh’s mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey back again) while the criminal investigation is underway, but this does nothing to stop the paranormal activity that plagues them.
A piano plays an awkward tune. A child’s toy is manipulated by invisible forces. A woman in white appears before Renai and repeatedly taunts her using her baby girl as bait. Deeply concerned for her son and his family, Lorraine contacts Elise’s cohorts Specs (Whannell), Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Carl (Steve Coulter). Together they look into Josh’s past dealings with the undead for a solution to this current creepy conundrum. While they investigate, young Dalton (Ty Simpkins) encounters clues of his own as his astral projection abilities resurface. All this blends to construct a mystery that makes seeing the second film integral to fully understanding the first.
Wan and Whannell deserve credit for their ambition here. Rather than throwing another seemingly average family into the peril of poltergeist hauntings, they build upon the characters already created and weave a more complicated tapestry of storytelling that ties the two narratives together in a way that is sure to delight fans. However, their ambition sometimes overshoots their execution.
One major misstep, the return of quirky comic relief team of Specs and Tucker, seems sentimental, as one is played by the screenwriter and the other by a longtime friend of Whannell and Wan. Their ungainly antics and the various reaction shots they are given are distracting, offering cheap laughs and killing the ghost tale’s tension. Even more distracting is the decision to badly overdub the dialogue of Young Elise (Lindsay Seim) with the voice of the late Elise (Lin Shaye) in a 1986-set flashback that explains how Elise and Josh met. Thankfully, Wan steadies his footing with a solid second act. But the third stumbles as plot holes stack up, leading to a climax that’s not as satisfying as I’d hoped for. These grievances aside, Wan and company have crafted a solidly frightening feature.
Wan has a skill for creating atmosphere, and he’s at the top of his game transforming Lorraine’s spacious home into a labyrinth of ghosts and unseen dangers. The cinematography makes masterful use of the space revealing dark doorways that will fill viewers fear as they watch for something to pop out at them. This makes moments of characters walking through the halls of the home delightfully anxiety-inducing, and also gives plenty of opportunity for in-camera scares. I’ll be honest. At the press screening I attended, I got so creeped out that my skin broke out into goosebumps. I also screamed repeatedly—not little skittish yelps, but full on throat-rattling screams.
I typically feel like if a horror movie is satisfyingly scary, it’s done its job. And no question: Insidious: Chapter 2 scared me with its mysterious tale of murder and malevolence. But what makes the film something more than a worthwhile thrill is the cast, who ground Wan’s ghouls in a relatable world. My heart went out Renai thanks to Byrne, who creates a complex character torn between her desperate wish to get things back to normal and her fear that this may never happen. She loves Josh, and fears him, making for a dynamic that is literally hair-raising but also heartbreaking. For his part, Wilson is remarkable in his role, deftly handling the dueling sides of his character with an electric sharpness. Whether he’s cradling his kids or menacing a nosey investigator, Wilson is mesmerizing. His classic good guy looks only adds to the movie’s disturbing tone.
To avoid spoilers, I can’t really dig into my favorite element of Insidious: Chapter 2. Suffice to say I found the backstory for the veiled ghost from the first film to be fantastically twisted and terrifically terrifying. Between this, Saw and The Conjuring, Wan has proven to be a unique talent in the sphere of horror. Hopefully his entry into the Fast & Furious franchise won’t keep him away too long. The genre needs more movies like Insidious: Chapter 2.