Right up front, I liked Insidious. In fact, I like James Wan’s entire spectral filmography so far, even his much-maligned haunted ventriloquist dummy flick Dead Silence. I loved The Conjuring, the close proximity of which means that it’s inevitably going to get a lot of comparisons with Insidious: Chapter 2, and vice versa. It’s not very often that a director releases two unrelated films in the same subgenre so close together. Unfortunately for Insidious: Chapter 2, it’s going to just-as-inevitably suffer by the comparison. Not because it doesn’t have plenty of strengths of its own, but rather because those strengths are not always the same as the strengths of The Conjuring or even its own predecessor.
While the first Insidious did quite well for itself, a lot of people didn’t like where it went in the third act. I loved it. And I think your reaction to Insidious: Chapter 2 may depend a little on which side of that particular fence you came down on.
While Insidious: Chapter 2 never goes anyplace quite as cartoonish as its predecessor, it does go places just as ridiculous, and ups the ante on the previous film’s mythology in weird, recursive, occasionally delightful ways. The biggest difference between Insidious: Chapter 2 and both The Conjuring and the first Insidious is that this installment is a lot more concerned with story than either of those were. There’s a ton of story here, and it picks up from and builds upon the events of Insidious in interesting ways. James Wan’s longstanding giallo influences emerge in Chapter 2 as a full-on giallo-style murder mystery, complete with a villain who could have come straight out of a Dario Argento film.
If there’s a problem with this, it’s that Insidious: Chapter 2 may suffer from having too much story in comparison to Wan’s previous ghostly efforts. In Insidious and The Conjuring, the story was frequently a way to get from scare A to scare B. In Chapter 2, the story takes center stage, and while it’s certainly filled to bursting with creepy moments, it never has the kind of jump-out-of-your-seat scares that we’ve come to expect. Compared to the taut and refreshingly simple terror of The Conjuring, in particular, Insidious: Chapter 2 feels rambling and just not as scary.
In a post-Scream world where almost every horror film is (perhaps necessarily) at least somewhat self-aware, one of the many joys of James Wan’s films is his ability to incorporate influences without ever crossing over into pastiche. The Conjuring was a near-perfect evocation of 70s haunted house and possession films, without feeling like a retread of any of them. I mentioned the giallo heritage of Insidious: Chapter 2, but there’s also moments of The Shining and The Changeling and a dozen others besides. Maybe what surprised and delighted me the most about Chapter 2 was how old-fashioned and even hokey Wan and co-writer Leigh Whannell were willing to go with many of the film’s trappings. While the filmmaking style is totally modern and in keeping with the previous installment, the set dressing is often as hoary as can be. From scenes in an abandoned hospital to an actual cobweb-strewn haunted mansion complete with hidden passages behind sliding bookcases, there are literally even ghosts in sheets in this movie, and a scene with a falling chandelier, all played completely straight. If you’d told me a few months ago that I’d be watching a serious horror film complete with falling chandeliers and sheeted ghosts in theatres this year, I probably wouldn’t have believed you, but I’d be happy to have been proven wrong.