No fewer than three times during “Insidious: Chapter 2,” the sequel to James Wan’s hit 2010 horror entry, its central clan of haunted suburbanites seems to address the audience directly. “It’s still happening!” they exclaim to one another, and it’s true—objects rattle and familiar apparitions re-emerge regularly. But these winking outbursts bring up a self-aware question that the film believes it will answer, then proceeds to spectacularly mishandle: Why, besides a stellar opening weekend, does this extended narrative exist?
Director Wan, who returns to the franchise with screenwriter/actor Leigh Whannel, knows the effects of franchise monotony: a career shadowed by the “Saw” series has clued him to the pitfalls of repetitive follow-ups. And in initial concept, he attempts an admirable switch in approach with 'Chapter 2.' We pick up with the Lambert family mere moments after the original's cliffhanger ending, which saw the rescue of possessed Dalton (Ty Simpkins), and the supernatural murder of psychic Elise (Lin Shaye).
The events prompt a police investigation that relocates the Lamberts under the roof of grandmother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), and a fissure of distrust quickly forms between Josh (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Renai (Rose Byrne). She hears him whispering to no one in particular. He appears indifferent to Dalton’s restored night terrors. Renai begins to question whether the same force that inhabited Dalton now lives in her husband, but in the first of many unwieldy tonal shifts, Josh theatrically sidles into frame. “What is it, honey?” he asks, a malicious half-grin on his face. “Is everything okay?”
To peg Byrne’s reaction to his question as comical is an understatement, but that juxtaposition of heightened Hammer horror and genre parody is Wan’s main priority this time. A séance flashback of a young Elise (Lindsay Seim) is an early sign, all stodgy blocking and overdone ADR; later on, a character actually wills themselves asleep while being attacked to enter “the further,” an astral-projected spirit world populated by green fog and spectres caked in white makeup. Like the random fairground horrors repeatedly seen in that world, the limits of cheap kitsch threaten to spill over into nearly every scene.
Occasionally the fusion succeeds, mostly in the plot thread following ghosthunters Specs and Tucker (played by Whannel and Angus Samson). Here, the duo team up with fellow practitioner Carl (Steve Coulter) in order to solve Elise’s murder, and as they journey from the bowels of her home to an abandoned hospital littered with ghostly activity, their bumbling, naive approach complements the film’s most effective images—a room of murder victims cloaked in dirty white sheets, especially—with moments of earned humor.
In widening the playing ground to include the ghosthunters and other tertiary characters though, Wan neglects the crucial dynamic at the film’s core. Byrne and Wilson were the anchoring force to the silliness of "Insidious," and the time-hopping mythology that Wan attempts here is again strengthened by their involvement. But specifically with this pair, Wan sacrifices their significance by viewing them as punchlines. Wilson's new role is that of stock Lifetime-movie aggressor, veering between tortured monologues and ham-fisted apologies to the hysterical Byrne, who stumbles through the film like a Mr. Magoo caught in cobwebs. As an actress, Byrne is able to wonderfully project vulnerability (and did so in the first film); it seems disrespectful then for Wan to utilize that same quality for laughs next to Wilson’s B-movie antics.
Only one moment in the film showcases an intersection of Wan’s tone and the performances of Byrne and Wilson: After their baby is almost kidnapped by the encroaching ghosts, Renai pleads to no avail for Josh to recognize the toll the hauntings have taken on her body and mind. Their argument unfurls on the house’s second floor, and as it escalates, downstairs, a piano begins to eke out a string of disembodied notes. Renai crumbles emotionally at her environment's playful cruelty; the feeling of persistent fright finally lands with a convincing immediacy.
The remainder of the film rejects that connection however, the overbearing sound effects and limp attempts at scares making us look elsewhere in the frame for interesting details. The image of Dalton’s younger brother Foster (Andrew Astor) came into view—a dark-haired boy whose name is never uttered, and who holds perhaps three lines total in the film. We began to wonder his untold perspective on his panic-stricken family, and how close emancipation procedures were from occurring. The urge to leave the Lamberts was a relatable one, and through the garish, tired entirety of “Insidious: Chapter 2,” it feels like Wan may be over them too. [D]