Sunday, September 15, 2013

Things Still Going Bump in the Night: INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2

A group of paranormal investigators have broken into the long abandoned home of a deceased serial killer. One of them slowly approaches a dusty chest latched shut in a creaky corner, arms outstretched to open the mysterious storage unit. That’s when a lady in the audience shouted, “That’s probably not a good idea!” That made me laugh, mostly because of her qualifying the statement with a “probably.” It’s most definitely a bad idea to do anything in the long abandoned home of a deceased serial killer, especially if you’re in a horror movie, most especially if you’re in a horror movie as dutifully predictable as Insidious: Chapter 2. It’s the kind of movie that, when a flutter of white fabric flits through a doorway deep in the background and Barbara Hershey nervously calls out “Renai?” you can be completely and totally sure that that’s not Renai at the end of the hall.

James Wan directs from collaborator Leigh Whannell’s screenplay, using the jumbled, thoroughly extraneous sequel to their original film as nothing more than an excuse to show us some of the inventory in his bag of horror filmmaking tricks. To be sure, Wan did that with their creepy Insidious in 2011 as well as his even scarier The Conjuring this summer. In Insidious: Chapter 2, however, we have nothing more than a rehashing and recapitulation of the previous film in ways that are theoretically interesting, but are in practice rather hollow. All the tricks in the world couldn’t have saved this movie that’s only interested in picking up where the story left off, finding ways to repeat what came before, echoing or outright restaging from different perspectives all the best scares from the first film on its way to a similar conclusion.  

As the pre-credit jump scare at the end of Insidious implied, after rescuing one of their sons (Ty Simpkins) from the clutches of an evil ghost in a shadowy spirit world, Renai (Rose Byrne) suspects her husband Josh (Patrick Wilson) returned with a possessive evil clinging to him. Chapter 2 picks up shortly thereafter, as Josh tries to convince his wife that moving into his childhood home with his mother (Hershey) will help them move on. She’s not buying it, especially as ghosts appear frequently in ways she recognizes from the first time. It feels like what the second half of a far-too-overlong version of the original film would’ve entailed. If the first was in some ways a riff on Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, this is most definitely a Poltergeist II: The Other Side. Sequels mean never having to say it’ll never happen again. Here, it all happens again.

There are mysterious noises, startling apparitions, slamming doors, bleats of punctuating orchestration, portentous dreams, a return of the bumbling tech-head ghost hunters (Whannell and Angus Sampson), and loud, sudden ghostly activity. It’s all so very familiar, sometimes reusing footage of the first film in moderately clever ways. But it proceeds with a sadly draining sense of repetition. In the first film, scary things happen to frightened people. This time, frightened people happen to scary things, a small but important shift. Since the hauntings have followed the characters from the first time, they have more agency and information. Rather than using that to catch on more quickly to what’s happening and use the knowledge of the first film in sharp ways, the plot requires the main characters to blindly stumble into similar troubles while side characters set off on an investigation into a spooky boarded-up hospital and an eerie abandoned house. I suppose I don’t mind that on principle, but did they have to go in at night armed only with low-wattage flashlights and a set of woo woo spirit-communication dice? It’s like they knew that’d be the creepiest way to go about it.

After getting his first big break with the inventive, but icky for icky’s sake, 2004 feature Saw, Wan has slowly but surely become a confident horror director. He plays on fears by foregrounding what’s inside and outside of the frame, moving the camera in sometimes-masterful ways to reveal scares and withhold jolts until the tension of not getting a shock is almost unbearable. But here he’s putting his talents to use with awfully thin material, cheaply repetitive and recycled, not just from its own predecessor, but from a whole host of horror tropes. The whole thing is shivery, but never truly scary, with jump scares that can’t even make it to the level of a jolt. In its entirety, it is less frightening than any given five minute stretch of The Conjuring. It’s the kind of stale regurgitation that gives horror sequels a bad name.

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