My maternal grandmother was a pint-sized lady, but from what I hear, when faced with the Great Depression, she stood quite tall. The little shotgun shack her girls grew up in was always kept spotless and the children were never allowed to go anywhere in dirty clothes. A few stitched up holes here and there, sure, but never any dirt. "Just because you're poor," she was fond of telling my mother, "doesn't mean you have to look that way." With that kind of mindset, I'd have to think my "Minnie Ma" would have appreciated the films of director James Wan.
You see, Wan's the kind of guy that if you give him a measly $1.2 million dollars (chump change in Hollywood; that amount probably wouldn't even be enough to get James Cameron out of bed in the morning) to make a movie like Saw or Insidious, he won't settle for it looking cheap just because he doesn't have a big budget. Wan will pour every bit of creativity he can into the film to make sure it's visually appealing, competently acted, and most important of all, entertaining.
Okay, let me qualify that last part just a bit. How much you'll be entertained by Insidious: Chapter 2 will likely depend on your expectations. Thanks to the mysterious workings of Hollywood movie schedulers, though it was shot over a year ago, Wan's last film The Conjuring just came out in theaters a few short months ago. Apparently audiences were in the mood for a good old fashioned creep-fest because The Conjuring became one of the breakout hits of the year. Well, Insidious: Chapter 2 is certainly not The Conjuring. While the latter truly wanted to get under your skin and frighten you, the former plays its scares entirely for fun, taking the kookier elements from the first Insidious and running with them full steam. So, if you were hoping for more of the serious eeriness you got from The Conjuring, you're going to be sorely disappointed in Insidious: Chapter 2. But if you enjoyed the goofy tone of the first Insidious, then you should be more than happy.
Speaking of Insidious (should I be calling it Chapter 1 now), it might actually help to rewatch the first film before going to see the sequel because, trust me, you're going to have to remember whole scenes from it in order to keep up with everything that happens this time around. But let's not jump ahead. Insidious: Chapter 2 begins with a brief prologue where we get to see some of the events only discussed in the previous picture, ones dealing with the haunting of the young Josh Lambert. It's here that Wan immediately begins to show off his craft, managing to drag every bit of tension possible out of a simple game of hot and cold as the young Josh tries to direct the psychic Elise to where the ghost is hiding. Cold, warm, warmer, hot, hotter, BOO! You know it's coming, but he's talented enough to make it work anyway.
The movie then picks up right from where the first one ended, with the now adult Josh (or is it really him) having just murdered Elise after she helped him save his own son from the dimension of the dead. The problem is, nobody saw him do it, so it's pretty easy for Josh to blame Elise's death on one of the many ghostly entities that were popping up all over the place at the end of the first movie. It also helps his story a bit that the police can't positively identify his fingerprints as the ones on the victim's neck. So you can see already where Insidious: Chapter 2 is going. It's Hitchcock's ticking time bomb scenario all over again. The audience, and eventually Josh's own family, are pretty sure he's been possessed by the evil spirit who haunted him as a child, we just don't know exactly when he's going to go off his rocker and cut loose on everyone.
While we wait for the inevitable, the movie let's us spend some time with the various other characters as they try to track down the history of the creature which seems hellbent on destroying their lives. Wan wisely gives Barbara Hershey, who plays Josh's mother, a lot more screen time than she got the first time around, teaming her up with Carl, an old colleague of Elise's whom we first meet during the opening flashback. Also getting more attention in Chapter 2 are fan favorites Specs and Tucker, the helpless nebbishes who assisted Elise in her efforts to aid the Lambert family. Watching these four unlikely ghost hunters stumble around deserted houses and abandoned hospitals together, it starts to become evident why Wan's films work where other similar movies don't. Every one of the characters is actually likable, a rare commodity in modern horror, and once the proceedings begin to veer away from the comedic towards the awful, you truly don't want anything bad to happen to any of them.
I know, that doesn't sound quite right, does it? I mean, as part of the divine virtue of charity, we're supposed to try and experience empathy (the act of entering into another's feelings, needs, and sufferings) with all people, likable or not. But movies are fiction, and poorly written characters just don't come across as real people, so it's next to impossible to empathize when a gooey monster or a guy in a mask does something terrible to them. The fault lies with the lazy filmmakers, not with us viewers. Fortunately, in most of Wan's movies, he and his actors manage to imbue their characters with enough human traits so that they do feel real and empathy's not a problem.
Unfortunately, Wan doesn't always spend as much time developing his story as he does his characters. One criticism he receives a lot is that his films are derivative, and in part that complaint is valid. The first Insidious blatantly lifted things from other movies, Poltergeist in particular, and Chapter 2 follows suit, referencing everything from classy old chillers like The Changeling to crass exploitation flicks like Sleepaway Camp. But despite this, Wan does have a talent for properly utilizing the derivative elements in his movies, using the audience's expectations to his film's advantage. For instance, when a character approaches a mirror, everybody knows from watching decades of horror movies that someone or something is going to pop up in the reflection. And at just the right moment, Wan doesn't let you down. You expect the mirror ghost, you get the mirror ghost. But that kind of familiarity can offer a false sense of security, so when something familiar is followed up by a spook unexpectedly popping up and punching somebody in the face (yes, that actually happens), it catches the audience a bit more off guard than it normally might because that move definitely isn't in the standard playbook.
So all in all, Insidious: Chapter 2 is a fun way to spend an hour and a half, especially if you see it with an enthusiastic crowd who came to see an Insidious movie and not a sequel to The Conjuring. Much like its predecessor, it won't win any marks for originality or break any new ground in the horror genre, but not every movie has to do that, especially not when they can do the same old thing so well.