The last time that James Wan directed two feature films in the same year, they were the two worst projects that he ever made in the embarrassing Dead Silence, and the abysmal Death Sentence. This time, the guy made two of his most successful movies in the unexpected horror hit The Conjuring and now the oddly dreamlike Insidious: Chapter 2. The Conjuring was overpraised for the way it delivered efficient rounds of jump scares while Insidious: Chapter 2 will probably be criticized for doing the same thing. The difference comes down to how Wan went about doing the same trick twice. The Conjuring was a safe bet haunted house picture that followed genre formulas to a T while Insidious: Chapter 2 is an asinine sequel that almost feels like stream-of-consciousness surrealism. Both films are equally impressively crafted and undeniably flawed, but The Conjuring was simplistic enough to play for all audiences while Insidious: Chapter 2 will likely only appeal to the nerdiest of horror fans, the kind who can appreciate a reference to Inferno and enjoy giggling at poor plotting and overacting as much as they enjoy a good scare.
As to what Insidious: Chapter 2 is about… well, that’s tricky. The script is a convoluted mess that both picks up immediately after the events of the first movie and dips into the past for some reason. The family from Insidious returns, only now Patrick Wilson is possessed by an evil spirit and is suddenly messing with his family. Of course, his wife Rose Byrne figured that out at the end of the last movie, but all Wilson has to do to convince her otherwise is say something along the lines of “don’t be silly” and not even continued hauntings will convince her he’s lying. Yep, the sequel is pitched on that level of stupid. At the same time, the ghost-busting dorks from the last movie investigate an old haunting from the 80s involving a creepy hospital that kind of relates to the main storyline. It doesn’t really add up, and it doesn’t have to. The script is a horror set piece delivery system, not a narrative. And thankfully, there are plenty of big jump scares for Wan to dig his teeth into.
Subtlety isn’t really part of James Wan’s vocabulary as a filmmaker. Every shot he frames is stylized, and every scene comes with a jump. The more movies he makes, the better he gets at delivering those jumps and Insidious: Chapter 2 is one of his best. In particular, there’s a sequence early on involving a baby monitor that is better than anything in The Conjuring and will make even the most cynical and sedate audience member jump in their seat. The only reason to watch a James Wan movie is for a moment like that, and you get a handful here. Other than the style, effects, and scares, the movie is pretty useless. It’s Wan’s fourth movie with his old film school buddy/writing partner Leigh Whannell and that guy isn’t getting any better. He can set up a scare, but can’t write a relatable character or credible plotline to save his life. Insidious 2 is particularly rough, without a single scene feeling like it progresses logically to the next, or a line of dialogue that sounds like it could come out of the mouth of an actual human being.
Not even the greatest actors in the world can make bad writing credible and aside from the always lovely Barbara Hershey, the film doesn’t exactly have the greatest actors in the world. Everyone on screen either sneers hysterically to be evil, or screams hysterically in response, and every single performance is arch and/or ludicrously over the top. However, combined with Wan’s go-for-broke, scare-a-second style it all kind of works. Wan slathers on enough style to make up for the lack of substance in the script. The movie is pulled so far out of reality that all of the ludicrous excesses start to feel of a piece. It’s not deliberate of course, but like a fine Italian gorefest like Inferno or The Beyond, the cheese becomes comedic relief to the unrelenting scares. Based on most conventional modes of judgment, Insidious 2 is a failure. However, the fails in such spectacular ways that it’s never boring, and the successful scares are some of the finest this filmmaker has ever achieved. The movie is certainly entertaining from start to finish, just not necessarily always “good.” If that type of cinematic experience appeals to you, Insidious 2 will feel like a treat. If not, there’s always The Conjuring and all of the safe scares therein to enjoy. Your choice.