by Steve Habrat
Two years ago, director James Wan took critics and audiences by surprise with Insidious, a ghostly funhouse that rose above the lowered expectations that surrounded it. Just two short months ago, Wan proved himself as a force to be reckoned with in the horror community with The Conjuring, a 70s-inspired haunted house throwback that became the sleeper hit of the summer and was hailed as one of the scariest films to come around in years. Apparently, there was no rest for the wicked. Tossed into theaters just in time for Friday the 13th is Insidious: Chapter 2, a slipshod cash-grab sequel that ranks as one of the worst horror films of 2013. What Insidious: Chapter 2 does prove, however, is that maybe Wan wasn’t the hack many thought he was when he was cranking out garbage like Saw and Dead Silence. No, it appears the problem is Whannell, who serves up a wretchedly muddled screenplay that desperately tries to explain nearly every little detail of the far superior original film. Even the cast, which is comprised of established actors and actresses like Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye, and Jocelin Donahue, seem completely perplexed and lost within the film they are starring in, causing them all to give some of the worst performances you may see this year. I don’t think it would surprise anyone if this cast were up for the worst ensemble at the upcoming Razzies.
Insidious: Chapter 2 picks up with Renai Lambert (played by Rose Byrne) being interviewed by a police detective about the mysterious death of paranormal investigator Elise Rainer (played by Lin Shaye), who was found strangled to death moments after Josh Lambert (played by Patrick Wilson) returned from the Further. Renai denies that Josh had anything to do with Elise’s death and she continues to insist that it was the spirit of a woman in a black wedding gown that was the one responsible for the murder. Renai leaves to rejoin her family, who has moved in with Josh’s mother, Lorraine (played by Barbara Hershey), while the police continue with their investigation. Just as life seems to be getting back to normal, Renai and Lorraine both have separate paranormal experiences that suggest the malicious spirits have not moved on yet. Meanwhile, Josh’s behavior gets more and more bizarre, suggesting that his body has been taken over by one of the most violent spirits wandering the Further. Frightened for their lives, Lorraine and Renai seek out the help of Specs (played by Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (played by Angus Sampson), the duo who aided with Josh’s trip into the Further the first time. They also track down Carl (played by Steve Coulter), Elise’s former partner who has encountered these spirits before.
The biggest crime committed by Whannell and Insidious: Chapter 2 is the fact that it resorts to rehashing the scares that worked the first time around rather than attempting anything new. While there are one of two scenes that will curl your toes and cover your arms in goosebumps, everything is way too familiar to really give this installment any identity of its own. To make things worse, Whannell’s script goes to great lengths to explain away all the scarier moments of the first Insidious. Did we really need to know what was knocking on the front door and setting off the home security system in the first film? Was anyone truly obsessing over the identity of that shadowy bride in back that kept appearing in the Lambert’s photographs of Dalton? It’s highly unlikely, but Whannell seems to think that everyone needs to know. Apparently Wan didn’t explain to Whannell that the lack of an explanation for that phantom manifestation, bump, or creak just down the hallway is scarier when you DON’T know who or what caused it. At least those who were let down by the first film’s ending can rest easy knowing that the Darth Maul spirit that crawled across the walls and made dolls doesn’t dare make an appearance.
When you’re not cringing over all the blue-in-the-face explanation, the acting will certainly have you burying your face in your bag of popcorn. Nearly every single actor or actress that steps in front of the camera gives a glaringly rehearsed or robotic performance, leading you to wonder if anyone really cared how this movie actually turned out. Wilson is at his absolute worst as Josh, the crazed papa from Hell who wields a baseball bat and stands in the hallways at night whispering to unseen figures that command him to kill. By the end of the film, you’ll be secretly hoping that The Amityville Horror’s George Lutz will coming barreling through the front door with an axe and show Josh who’s boss. Byrne is basically asked to wander around the new setting with wide eyes and fake tears as toys go flying through the air and piano notes chime suddenly. Coulter is all anxious shifts and awkward fumbles, a new character that could work if he had just the slightest bit of personality or courage. Whannell and Sampson return as the geeky paranormal investigators Specs and Tucker, who are here to break the tension when things get a little too spooky. It’s just a shame Whannell’s jokes are mothballed gags that will have you shaking your head. Shaye does an okay job, but its clear she is a bit baffled as to why she is even here. Hershey is the only one who really attempts to sell the absurdity and in the process, she delivers the only performance that is worth anything. The House of the Devil’s Jocelin Donahue shows up in a handful of flashback sequences that you wish would have been left on the cutting room floor. If you want to see some truly awful acting, just watch the opening flashback sequence of this movie. I couldn’t believe that the studio didn’t demand reshoots.
As far as bright spots go within Insidious: Chapter 2, the best parts of the film are the small nods to classic horror films that Whannell and Wan place throughout. Even though Wilson nearly destroys them, there are a few little tips of the hat to Psycho, The Shining, and The Amityville Horror. These nods could have been even better had Wilson actually cut back on some of the cheese. There are also a few scenes that pay tribute to the striking lighting schemes that horror fans admired at in Dario Argento’s Suspiria. This is unsurprising considering that Wan and Whannell cited Argento as a major inspiration for the first film. There are also a few stretches where Wan really finds a groove with the haunted house scares, but these are largely done in by jolt shocks or fake outs that just irritate you. As if Insidious: Chapter 2 needed anything else working against it, wait until your ears are treated to some of the film’s painfully awkward dialogue. Absolutely none of it comes across as natural and a good majority of it is unintentionally hilarious. Overall, it truly is a disappointment to see Wan slumming it like this, especially after crafting one of the most fiendishly frightening films to come along in quite some time. Insidious: Chapter 2 is a redundant and convoluted mess that nearly destroys the reputation of the first film. Hopefully, Wan has the good sense to back out of a third installment, as another Insidious film is inevitable. Come to think of it, the set up for a third film was probably the scariest part of Insidious: Chapter 2.
In these indolent times that are plaguing Hollywood, it’s such a refreshing experience seeing a film that is not a direct remake of an older, often times superior original. It’s usually an iconic film that studios use to simply milk money from our wallets. They repackage the film, tie it up with a big CGI bow, throw in half-baked 3D, and we flock to see it because we are familiar with it. If they aren’t desecrating an old gem, they are lifting the material from a book, comic book, or graphic novel. It makes me wonder if any of these writers or suits out there in the City of Angels remotely consider picking their own brains for a good story. The genre that especially can’t seem to help itself is the horror genre. It seems that absolutely no one can come up with an original and relentlessly scary little horror flick these days. Instead, studios just look to rebooting tired franchises whose knives and machetes are showing signs of rust (Yes, I am talking about you Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th remakes!). It seems like every year we get one scary movie that is actually effective. Last year’s stylish American remake Let Me In was a standout. The year before saw the, in my humble opinion, good but not great haunted house thrill-ride Paranormal Activity. We’ve also seen an amped up remake of The Hills Have Eyes, the colorfully blood drenched Dawn of the Dead remake, the tribute to 50’s B-movie creature features The Mist, the claustrophobic monster movie The Descent, and the outstanding British zombie flick 28 Days Later, and the based-on-true-events chiller The Mothman Prophecies. That’s basically what we have had to work with since 2002. And three of those are remakes!!
While creativity is one portion of the problem, another reason why horror ultimately ran itself into the ground was the work of two men—James Wan and Leigh Whannell. They are the culprits who graced our movie screens with the torture porn clunker Saw. They ignited a frenzy of films that shamelessly bathed in body fluids and they also sparked a line of horrendous sequels that followed. While the only notable film in the series was Saw III, they influenced Hostel, Wolf Creek, and a slew of others that were less concerned about being scary and more concerned with making you squirm. And many of them were successful at making you cover your eyes but the genuine scares were non-existent. Yet in the past few years, torture porn has made itself scarce and horror has been attempting to embrace real fear again. It’s funny that the men who reduced horror to ashes, have played Dr. Frankenstein and risen it like a phoenix. Insidious is that phoenix.
Insidious is one of the scariest movies I have seen in quite sometime and is simply one of the best horror movies in years. Yeah, I said it. And it’s also original! Sure, it’s an unholy fusion of Poltergeist, The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Amityville Horror, but these days, we have to be carful when we criticize something that attempts to break new ground. Alas, Insidious does not but it sure makes a valiant attempt. Instead, Insidious conjures up some truly hellish images that are guaranteed to linger in your head for days after witnessing them. The film follows Josh (Played by Watchmen’s Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Played by 28 Weeks Later’s Rose Byrne) Lambert and their three children as they move into their new home. All seems well until strange noises are heard throughout the home, objects are moved, and one of their children, Dalton, falls into a coma (Ya know, the usual!). But after a seriously spooky night in their home, they begin to wonder if the reason their son has fallen into this enigmatic coma is supernatural rather than medical. The Lambert’s call in a group of paranormal investigators who quickly determine that Dalton is trapped in a ghostly parallel universe called The Further.
If it sounds like you’ve heard all of this before, you have, as Wan has crafted a loving tribute to the horror films of old. He throws reference after reference at the audience and one could almost make the film into a game of spot that horror reference. It’s all quite fun but it’s the 180-degree shift in the quality of the work here that is really quite impressive. Wan’s chiaroscuro industrial aesthetic still lingers but the film itself is much more patient than Saw. It feels like there is discipline here and I think much of that may stem from the producers who were also responsible for Paranormal Activity. There is no over-reliance on blood and guts (The film is rated PG-13) and instead relies on loud bangs, growls, shadowy figures, and sudden music blasts to make you soil your shorts. But Wan also fries your nerves through some seriously haunting images; most striking of all is a shadowy apparition standing behind a baby’s crib and a demon lurking in the corner of poor Dalton’s room. Even Whannell’s script provides a few blasts of heebie-jeebies. One scene includes a character describing a dream that she had and all I will say is that it turned my insides to ice cubes. It gives me chills just think back to it! This scene demonstrates the beauty of your imagination getting the best of you.
What’s even more impressive about the film is the performances that Wan manages to capture. He has positioned two very talented actors at the core of the film and it doesn’t hurt either that Barbara Hershey (Black Swan) shows up as a concerned grandmother. Lin Shaye pops up and provides a fine performance as the psychic Elise Rainier. While sometimes the acting does dip and head into cheesy territory mostly from his child actors, it’s forgivable. What does end up hurting the film and causes it to loose some of its momentum is the final act, which falls victim to the you-never-show-the-monster syndrome. It causes the film to descend into the fun house realm. Someone should have explained to Wan that it’s what you don’t see that ends up being the most horrifying.
While the ending suffers a bit, the film is still astonishing in how uncompromising it is in its attempts to send you screaming from the theater. It will get you at least once. The film sadly chooses the same path that the final minutes of Paranormal Activity did and embrace the CGI trickery. In Insidious, however, you overlook it because the final minutes of this demon are unpredictable. Just get ready for an I-did-not-see-that-coming twist. But the first three fourths of the film is so good, that Insidious haunts its way onto the must see list. The film also redeems any potential talent that James Wan and Leigh Whannell have and it leaves me intrigued for what they do next. I will leave you with is this: Any film that makes me walk into a darkened room and quickly flip on the light is one you have to see (Seriously, it really did that to me.). Insidious is an inspired creep-out that will haunt your dreams. Grade: A
Insidious is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.