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Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)

Back to Conjuring a Paranormal Possession on Elm Street

Fittingly, Insidious 2 is packed with bitter ghosts who affect the living in ways visible and invisible to the naked eye. This is both a handy plot device and, I believe, a subconscious confession by writer Leigh Whannell--whose solo screenplay credit should look more like this:

Screenplay by Leigh Whannell (with Joseph Stefano, Robert Hiltzik, Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson, Wes Craven, Bruce Wagner, Frank Darabont, and Chuck Russell)

If this is your first horror movie (or second, as a fan of the first film), you may not recognize the direct cribs from Psycho, Sleepaway Camp, The Shining, or A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. Genre connoisseurs, however, will likely spend the entire film wondering if Whannell and director James Wan set out to make a horror movie or a multi-million-dollar experiment that tests just how limited their audience's alertness and knowledge of cinema history is. You won't find a single, original idea here--except for the ballsy proposition that such a weird mash-up of disparate films might actually work.

This may surprise some of you, but I think it does.

Let's back up a bit. I couldn't stand Insidious, but I get its phenomenal success. Directed and written by the co-creators of one of horror's biggest franchises, it offered the illusion of originality by being a classic narrative picture in a half-decade marked by comparatively cheap-looking "found-footage" movies, remakes, and sequels. The fact that it was a jump-scare-heavy Poltergeist rip-off was lost on all but a handful of us lonely, cranky, old bastards, who could only watch in amazement as people hailed Insidious as a modern masterpiece.

Naturally, I had doubts about the sequel, which were well-founded for about the opening half-hour. The first film ended with Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) murdering Elise (Lin Shaye), the psychic paranormal investigator who'd helped him and his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) rescue their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) from purgatory (got all that?). Chapter 2 opens with a flashback, and we learn that Elise had actually met Dalton as a young boy, when his mother called for help with strange goings-on in their home. It's a hell of a way to start the movie, but all the tension and intrigue are undermined by one of the most off-putting, unnecessary uses of ADR I've ever heard:

Lindsay Seim, the actress playing Young Elise, looks like Shaye. Her character shares the same fashion sense and hairstyle as Shaye wore in the first film, and is also referred to several times by name. You'd either have to be completely brain-dead or an avid movie-theatre-texter (sorry for the redundancy) to wonder who it is you're watching--but the filmmakers were apparently so scared of point-zero-zero-zero-one percent of the audience not being on board that they had Shaye record all of the younger actress's dialogue. The result is a creepier display of ventriloquism than anything in Wan's killer-dolls movie, Dead Silence.

From here, things get worse and more insulting by the minute: we flash forward to modern day to find Renai being interrogated by the police. They suspect her husband of having strangled Elise to death--a crime we know he committed after an evil spirit possessed him at the end of Chapter 1. But the cops didn't see this happen, so why is Josh not at least in custody? And if Renai has photographic proof that her husband was (or is) compromised by the murderous ghost who kidnapped her son, why does she accept his word that everything is magically okay?

The first third of Insidious 2 not only defies logic, it actively pushes the boundaries of how much unrelatable nonsense moviegoers will accept in their entertainment (which circles nicely back to my experiment theory). But the homage mash-ups kick in during the second act, and the movie becomes a series of highly entertaining zigs and zags that kept me awake and interested (not the least of which was a nifty nod to Back to the Future Part 2).

Fair Warning: I've refrained from spoilers so far, but that's about to stop.

To give Wan and Whannell the easy-out of saying they're paying "homage" to classic horror movies is to grant every modern rip-off artist a free pass. When your maniacal dad character chases his wife and psychically in-tune son through a big, dark house house, busting through doors at the behest of the wicked spirits who've taken over his mind--you've officially stepped out of "coincidence" territory and re-made The Shining.

When it's revealed that your film's central villain is the ghost of a cross-dressing murderer who assumes the identity of his long-dead mother, you're banking on horror afficionados' unfamiliarity with Psycho. If said mother is revealed in flashback as a campy, screeching nut-job who dressed her son as a girl in order to get back at an absentee husband, comparisons to Sleepaway Camp aren't out of line. They are, in fact, grounds for theft charges.

Because the attention-deficient kids who make horror movies into opening-weekend sensations are as likely to appreciate 80s slashers as they are black-and-white movies (which is to say, about as likely as their understanding the term "pre-Internet"), I can see how the people behind Insidious 2 might be so brazenly plagiaristic. Why bother being original when there's a built-in audience with no sense of history and a misguided belief that there's no such thing as a new idea, anyway?*

I'll set my indignation to the side, because I really enjoyed this movie. Unlike Wan's other summer effort, The Conjuring, Insidous 2 takes its story to unexpected places, and is not content to be just another haunted-house picture. The sequel ramps up the stakes, the story, and the character dynamics in a way that fans of Wan's other work might consider "going off the rails"--but which I see as him taking chances for the first time in years. Wan is a gifted filmmaker who can recreate early-80s-horror atmosphere like nobody's business. But were most of his movies to have come out in the decade he so adores, they would have likely been lumped in with a million direct-to-VHS, non-starter cash-ins.

Despite their rocky beginnings, the Lambert family shines throughout most of the picture. When the good version of Josh gets trapped in the netherworld along with Elise and her old ghostbusting partner (Steve Coulter), they must race against the clock to solve the mystery of the "Bride in Black" ghost that's taken control of his living-world self before the killer can take full possession (yes, there's even an exposition-heavy trip to an abandoned hospital, which rounds out the Dream Warriors angle). It's great to see Wilson play both an earnest, concerned dad and a devilishly playful version of that same guy.

For her part, Byrne is once again handed the Screaming, Protective Mom role. But she infuses it with capital "A" acting in a way that suggests she's much smarter than the material. Especially in the second-to-last scene, when she's called upon to channel the audience's skepticism at her husband's newfound sanity, Byrne's ability to let the truth of that moment play across her face draws sharp contrast to whatever the hell was up with Renai earlier in the picture.

Insidious is not part of my home-video library, but Insidious 2 definitely will be. It's a surprisingly successful Warholian effort from Whannell and Wan, who smear familiar elements across a multi-million-dollar canvas, and have the audacity to call it "art". Though there's nothing original here (only a couple of neat, eerie visuals), they deserve a great deal of credit for at least creating a collage instead of churning out yet another copy.

*You might feel like calling me out for my unabashed love of Quentin Tarantino's films, which are uniformly homages to obscure genre pictures that the writer/director grew up loving. The key word is "obscure". Granted, thousands of people saw City on Fire, but millions have seen Reservoir Dogs and made it into a pop phenomenon. Also, Tarantino often places his love objects front and center (as he did with Uma Thurman's Bruce Lee outfit in Kill Bill), where Whannell and Wan carry on as if no one would ever think of lifting the bun on their cinematic hamburger to figure out why it tastes like pickles.