I’m inclined to be generous with genre movies in September, but Insidious 2 just can’t let it be. It has enough going for it to skate by on pure technique: lots of mildly effective boo-gotchas applied with reasonable aplomb, a sense of actual investment from the principle creative forces, and an occasional wink to the camera to remind us not to take it all so seriously. These are qualities that – under normal circumstances – might merit a viewing during the depressed doldrums of early fall. In that sense, Insidious 2 continues the tradition set by Insidious 1; the two feel very much of a kind.
Unfortunately, you won’t see many horror films ripping off their betters quite so brazenly as this one; its original premise and the box office success of the first film gives it a fair amount of cover, but it’s hard to ignore such chestnuts as a cross-dressing serial killer (with a monstrous mother, nach) or a climax pulled whole cloth from a certain Stanley Kubrick movie about a haunted hotel. Add to that a lot of embarrassing expository dialogue and some less than sterling acting on display, and the good elements don’t quite outweigh the dross.
As fans of the first film will recall, we last left our stalwart protagonist couple with their young son returned from the land of the dead and his father (Patrick Wilson) apparently possessed by whatever awful thing had been stalking him. It’s up to his exhausted wife (Rose Byrne), twitchy mother (Barbara Hershey) and the gang of psychics from Insidious 1 to ascertain what exactly has happened, and pry their beloved from the grips of the unquiet dead.
Herein lies another of Insidious 2’s problems. In order for that plot to work, the characters need to come down with an acute case of the Stupids: ignoring Wilson’s obviously altered condition, letting the kids come back to an obviously dangerous house, and stepping into evil crumbling buildings despite the obvious presence of a supernatural menace therein. These people can’t plead ignorance on this one and the more bone-headed things they do for the sake of moving the narrative forward, the less we’re inclined to care about the outcome.
The whole “creepy settings” thing does a little better, though it’s more of a mixed bag than a flat-out positive. There isn’t a single location in this movie that’s brightly lit or home-y. Hershey lives in a less whimsical version of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, while the abandoned hospital our intrepid investigators eventually explore pretty much screams “I’m supernatural and dangerous” with every new shakycam shot. That facilitates director James Wan’s cheap shock tactics (which, to be fair, work just as well here as they did in the first film), but it doesn’t reduce Insidious 2’s ultimately contrived nature.
Other questions strike at more fundamental elements of the plot. Characters have to rush to a certain place even though other events have rendered time meaningless; the convoluted mythology of this series takes several unnecessary twists just to get certain people in certain places; and the open-ended finale betrays the shameless money grab at the heart of it all. Against this, the actors lose the depth and nuance of their earlier performances. Wilson ratchets his energy down to absolute zero, while Byrne spends most of the film in a bug-eyed panic. Neither has much to work with here: the cat’s out of the bag, leaving their characters glumly resolving various pieces of unfinished business.
Having said that, it’s actually quite impressive that Wan manages as much as he does. The film’s best moments involve returning to inexplicable events from the first movie to provide unexpected answers. You can’t accuse it of conveniently ignoring any loose threads either; we find out who that creepy old lady is, for starters, as well as why Hershey’s mom knows so many psychics. It trundles out its tidbits in a reasonably disciplined manner, holding our attention without forgetting to laugh ever so gently at itself from time to time.
Frankly, those qualities aren’t lightly dismissed, especially in light of the time of year. Horror movies have taken it on the chin in 2013, and some of us are desperate enough that a little basic competence starts to look really good. It’s too bad Insidious 2 can’t make good on its obvious enthusiasm for the material: forced to pull from the cliché bin rather than taking the time to flesh out a more credible scenario. It’s never actively irritating, but neither does it justify our attention, save in that cynical way concerned only about the weekend’s grosses. Insidious 2 could have done better and almost does sometimes. More’s the pity that it couldn’t close the deal.