When it comes to presenting a chilly mood and delivering legitimate audience-jumping frights, James Wan is near the top of his game. After four viewings, 2011's haunted-house-cum-astral-projection sleeper horror hit "Insidious
" not only still holds up, but has gotten better in a lot of ways, its third-act journey into an otherworldly plane between the living and the dead known as "The Further" expertly crafted and so stylistically interesting that it no longer feels like the pic's far-fetched sore spot. Wan followed that low-budget success up with an even bigger, more acclaimed effort, the 1970s-set supernatural thriller "The Conjuring
." As handsomely mounted as this true-life portrait of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren was, in terms of pure jolting dread, "Insidious
" felt more avant-garde and dangerous, willing to take the sort of chances that "The Conjuring
" could not quite live up to. Less than two months later, Wan is back with the eagerly awaited "Insidious: Chapter 2," and his string of good fortune may be about to run out. Financially, it is sure to do gangbusters, but Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell should not expect the same fanfare they received the first time around.
A continuation of deteriorating returns, "Insidious: Chapter 2" falls into an obstacle course of traps that bar it from matching its predecessor. Despite being more or less structurally sound, its multiple narrative strands carefully interwoven as the spare pieces of its mysterious puzzle start fitting together, the plot itself has become bothersome in its convolution. Moving into a realm where one's suspension of disbelief is stretched to the breaking point, Wan and Whannell have gotten so preoccupied with one-upping what they did before that they end up breaking their own creepy spell. Whereas there was a certain level of restraint in the storytelling of "Insidious
," a gradual build that paid off all the more in those moments when its makers chose to strike hard and indelibly, "Insidious: Chapter 2" goes too far, too often, his scare tactics more familiar and predictable here and the comic relief delivered by ghost hunters Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) much too broad and ham-fisted. Are there individual moments of morbid inspiration, the kind to put a goose pimple or two on the viewer's arm? Certainly. But don't be surprised if you find yourself internally rolling your eyes more than recoiling in fear.
Following a prologue set in 1986 wherein medium Elise Rainier (Lindsay Seim) first meets and tries to help the Lamberts, single mother Lorraine (Jocelin Donahue) and her haunted young son, Josh (Garrett Ryan), the story picks up immediately where the first film left off. The adult Josh (Patrick Wilson) has just rescued son Dalton (Ty Simpkins), whose spirit form had traveled away from his physical body and gotten trapped in a dimension not meant to be traversed by the living. In their return to the real world, however, the same spectral presence that terrorized Josh as a childan old lady wearing a black veil and wedding dresshas followed him back. With the present-day Elise (Lin Shaye) found strangled to death, Renai (Rose Byrne) cannot curb her intuition that husband Josh might have had something to do with it. She trusts him and doesn't believe he'd be capable of murder, but when she looks into his eyes she no longer recognizes the man she married. As forensic sends away tests on fingerprints, the Lambert family go to stay with Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), hoping the worst is behind them. Almost immediately, Renai hears the piano playing when no one is in the room and Lorraine catches a glimpse of a woman not of this earth. Whatever was haunting them before is still around, and this time the threat may be even closer than they think.
"Insidious: Chapter 2" dares to fill in a large portion of the lingering questions and plot gaps left by the original picture, but it can never quite break away from feeling like a lackluster repeat stretched thin. For fans who will definitely be checking the film out no matter what, it would be wise to tiptoe, so to speak, around anything that might be considered a spoiler. With that said, a word of warning: do not expect to hear a refrain of Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Through the Tulips"used to unforgettably ominous effect in the previous movie and all over this one's advertising campaignbecause it is nowhere to be found. Wan and Whannell also disappoint by missing out on an ideal opportunity near the end to reintroduce the so-called "Lipstick-Face Demon." Instead, he isn't so much as glimpsed or mentioned, having apparently hopped on a bus traveling to the "Even Further." Choosing to not bring him back is tantamount to an installment of "A Nightmare on Elm Street
" not featuring Freddy Krueger. All of the new stuff cooked up simply does not have the same impact as the best scenes in the first "Insidious
" had, while a setpiece where characters wander around the conveniently abandoned hospital where Lorraine once worked are a little too wheel-spinningly calculated for their own good.
A sizable chunk of the second half is set in the black, fog-enshrouded netherworld "The Further," but gets a little too loopy and saccharine for its own good. Deceased characters pop up to reunite with friends, Elise's former assistant, Carl (Steve Coulter), runs around tossing lettered dice as a means of talking to spirits, and a ridiculous climactic scene where Renai and sons Dalton and Foster (Andrew Astor) are being stalked Jack Torrance-style finds Dalton abruptly laying down and going to sleep so he can go to "The Further" and save his dad. If "Insidious
" had a fanciful side that still felt rooted in a form of identifiable reality, "Insidious: Chapter 2" runs off the deep end. Tellingly, quite possibly the eeriest scene is one of the most subtle, with Lorraine remembering an elevator ride at the hospital where she worked with an elderly patient who she later learned had jumped to his death the day prior. Things pouncing at the screen every few minutes tends to get old, and this film spaces them too closely together to make a lasting impression.
"Insidious: Chapter 2" isn't a total wash, but it is difficult not to be disappointed. There is a spry alchemy to the way the story is constructed, and the ensemble cast of returnees (along with a few fresh faces) are committed to their roles and better than the genre often allows. They definitely do not phone it in. The production design by Jennifer Spence (2013's "The Lords of Salem
") is an invaluable asset, with each location meticulously chosen and used to their imminently sinister fullest. A late sequence thematically and stylistically recalling 1983's "Sleepaway Camp" is terrific. Beginning in mid-stream and stripped of a three-act structure, though, "Insidious: Chapter 2" strikes one as noticeably uneven and maybe even rushed. The shocks aren't as shocking, the humor is forced and inappropriate when Specs and Tucker are on the screen, and director James Wan isn't as confidently able to balance the rhythms that make a motion picture of this creed both suspenseful and unexpected without compromising its human element and the truth of the characters' situation. Instead of leaving on a jittery high like the first "Insidious
," one is more apt to walk out with the nagging thought that it was all rather cornball.