Angus Sampson, Barbara Hershey, cinema, disappointing films, film reviews, films, haunted houses, horror films, horror franchises, Insidious: Chapter 2, James Wan, Leigh Whannell, Lin Shaye, Movies, Nightmare on Elm Street, Paranormal Activity, Patrick Wilson, possession, Rose Byrne, Saw, sequels, Specs, Steve Coulter, The Further, the Lambert family, Tucker, Ty Simpkins
In most cases, trying to replicate a previous film’s successes is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Most sequels fail, at least as far as I’m concerned, because they’re trying to do one of two things: give the audience exactly what they got the first time around or unnecessarily prolong the original storyline. Horror franchises, in particular, tend to be guilty of both these “sins,” perhaps because many horror villains lend themselves so well to various merchandising options: Freddy lunch boxes, Jason bobbleheads, Michael Myer Halloween masks…the possibilities are endless. Many horror franchises, such as the Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th and Wrong Turn films, are content to merely re-deliver similar goods in each film: Jason may kill in Crystal Lake, Manhattan and outer space but the films all follow the same basic format. If you’re a fan of one of the films, you’ll probably enjoy most of them, give or take the odd dip in quality or various attempts at rebooting. In most cases, however, none of the sequels in these types of franchises are really necessary: despite the various (often contradictory) attempts to give Freddy Krueger a backstory, it never really makes much difference within the actual framework of the films.
On the other hand, series such as Paranormal Activity, Saw and Scream purport to tell one continuous story, adding elements with each new Roman numeral. This doesn’t, of course, prevent these other films from being carbon copies of the originals – I’ve seen almost all of the Saw films but would be hard-pressed to tell most of them apart – but it definitely highlights a difference in intent. As a lifelong horror fan, I’m actually hard-pressed to say which tactic I prefer. As a whole, I’m not really a fan of watching the same film over and over, which often makes many of the faceless Friday the 13th or Hellraiser sequels a bit tedious for me. On the other hand, I can’t think of anything more irritating than a bloated, unnecessarily inflated story and/or series: how much better could the Godfather have been minus the unneeded third entry? There may very well be a reason for splitting a horror film into thirteen separate parts but let’s be honest: there probably isn’t. The Paranormal Activity series is now up to five films, none of which do much to bolster the already flimsy narrative. The film is still flimsy: there’s just more of it, now.
In a similar vein, I settled into James Wan’s Insidious: Chapter 2 with no small amount of trepidation. I really enjoyed the first film, finding it to be one of the freshest, funnest and scariest mainstream horror films in quite some time. Wan’s reliance on actual scares and atmosphere, as opposed to the usual abundance of musical stingers, “scary faces” and jump scares that most modern horror films offer, was quite refreshing and I found myself looking forward to the inevitable sequel (not only was Insidious a huge hit at the box office but the film concludes with a pretty obvious open ending). As is often the case, however, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the wish and the granting of said wish. When I finally saw Insidious: Chapter 2, my sense of joy and wonder had been replaced by a pretty bitter sense of disappointment: not only is Insidious: Chapter 2 a lesser film than its far superior sequel, it’s not even a really good film on its own. Sometimes, you’re better off just wondering what might have been.
Like the original Halloween 2, Insidious: Chapter 2 is a true sequel to its parent film and begins immediately after the first film ended. Returning viewers will recall that worried father Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) had just successfully entered and returned from the mystical “Further” with his missing son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) in tow. After father and son had been reunited with mother Renai (Rose Byrne), however, a final scene showed Josh killing Elise Rainer (Lin Shaye), the kindly paranormal investigator who helped Josh recover his missing son. We’re given the impression that Josh has brought something back from the “Further,” something quite nasty and intent on taking over his life and family. With this in mind, Insidious: Chapter 2 begins with the end of the first film before launching us into the film proper, a little piece I like to call “The Possession of Josh.”
You see, from this point on, Insidious: Chapter 2 plots out a pretty specific course that should be familiar to just about anyone who’s seen a modern horror film: Josh begins to act strange, worries his family, is believed to be possessed, is possessed, must become unpossessed, fights against this idea, most overcome his past to preserve his future, etc. Whereas the original Insidious was a typical haunted house film (albeit exceptionally well-done) that went to some pretty unique places in the final third, the sequel is a pretty standard-issue possession film with some recycled haunted house elements thrown in. In fact, I daresay that most of the haunted house/creepy moments seem to either explicitly or implicitly reference something from the first film. It’s a frustrating development, especially when the first film seemed so inventive: this is the equivalent of a metal band scoring a surprise hit with a ballad and producing a follow-up that consists of thirteen ballads.
Insidious: Chapter 2 manages to rattle off a greatest-hits of horror beats: returning investigators Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) follow mysterious figures into rooms; creepy voices whisper in ears; unseen things rustle clothes in closets; creepy women in floor-length dresses (ala the terrifying Woman in Black from the first film) pop out to threaten and terrify everyone; little boys become inexplicably surrounded by countless specters (ala The Sixth Sense); we enter an altered version of our world (the “Further”) in order to better understand our “real” world…it’s all here. Whereas the first film came across as fresh, with just the proper amount of each disparate element (too much of the “Further” and the first film may have collapsed into silliness), the sequel just seems like a rehash of the original, heating up leftovers to have for a post-hangover brunch.
Perhaps my biggest complaint with Insidious: Chapter 2 is how little of an individual identity it seems to possess. Despite featuring the return of both the cast and filmmakers, Chapter 2 is a much lesser film than the first. In many ways, the movie plays like a rather dull synthesis of The Others, Poltergeist, The Sixth Sense and The Shining, with way too much emphasis given to Patrick Wilson’s Josh. I genuinely liked Wilson in the first film but he becomes extremely one-note very quickly in the sequel and I quickly grew tired of his clichéd “sinister grins” and “wicked eyes.” Anyone who complained about Nicholson’s zero-sixty insanity sprint in The Shining will probably smack their foreheads repeatedly: there’s nothing subtle about Wilson’s performance, in the slightest, and you would have to be one seriously tuned-out viewer to not get the whole point relatively early in the proceedings. As such, the film’s constant need to “reveal” new details is not only unnecessary but tiresome: when you figure out the joke by the first line, you don’t want to wade through miles of set-up.
As with any big disappointments, however, Insidious: Chapter 2 is never a complete wash. Lin Shaye, returning even though her character died in the first film, is always fun to watch and screenwriter/actor Whannell and Sampson make a really fun duo. I’m sure that Specs and Tucker will (eventually) get their own spinoff but one can only hope it has a bit more life to it than this mess. I also liked the subplot about the ultra-evil Parker Crane, although this aspect tended to remind me a bit too much of the similar “super-evil-guy” storyline in The Prophecy. More Parker Crane and less possessed Josh would have been a welcome substitution, in my book. There was also some very effective, genuinely frightening imagery associated with the Parker Crane bit, including one fantastic moment featuring sheet-covered bodies that is the easy highlight of the entire film. More moments like this and less of the tedium would have swung this from a disappointing failure to a mere disappointment, for me, but “too little, too late” is definitely the order of the day here.
Ultimately, I don’t think that I would have been quite so unimpressed by Insidious: Chapter 2 if I wasn’t so taken with the first film. I absolutely adore Wan’s original and have seen it half-a-dozen times in the few years since its release. While the original may not be the scariest or best “modern” horror film I’ve ever seen (that honor would probably go to a UK or French film, to be honest), it was certainly one of the funnest and a movie that I never tire of revisiting. I may not be a psychic but I’m pretty sure that I see plenty more screenings of Insidious in my future. The mists of time, however, seem to obscure any information about Insidious: Chapter 2. I’m pretty sure that means I never end up watching it again.