INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 2 Movie Review: The Weird Sequel Brian Wanted

James Wan is taking chances this time, and BLAIR WITCH 2: THE BOOK OF SHADOWS defender Brian loves it.

I am pretty sure of two things: 1. Insidious: Chapter 2 will be the #1 movie at the box office this weekend, probably doubling what it cost to make in the process, and 2. A lot of people are going to hate it. I actually quite enjoyed it, but audiences tend to reject sequels that go weird like this one does; since I was embargoed and thus unable to tweet what I thought of it, I merely tweeted at my good friend Sam to tell him we should start writing our defense now, as we've frequently defended not only James Wan's Dead Silence, but the polarizing, batshit crazy Blair Witch sequel Book Of Shadows.

Fear not, the Insidious sequel doesn't go THAT crazy. It's still a bit of a Poltergeist riff (indeed, one could even look at it as a full length version of the scene in Poltergeist II where Craig The Nelson turns evil after drinking the tequila "worm"), and the entire original cast returns (even the character who died), so it's not like it's unrecognizable as an Insidious film. But it's clear that Wan and Leigh Whannell are having a little more fun and banking on the built in audience to take a few chances with the narrative and its characters - there's even a sequence that owes as much to Back To The Future II as any horror sequel. They tell us right off the bat that things are going to be a bit "off", as a lengthy flashback to 1986 features a young actress playing Lin Shaye's character - with Lin's voice dubbed in over hers. The sequence also features Jocelin Donahue as a young Barbara Hershey (a remarkable casting choice - they could easily pass for mother and daughter), but Donahue retains her own voice, making Lin's all the more distracting - but if the intention was to let us know that this was going to be a bit of a weird ride, then it's a solid choice.

Of course, if you remember the end of the first film (I know of at least one person who saw the sequel without even having seen the original - I don't know how the hell they were able to follow it), you'd remember that Patrick Wilson's patriarch was seemingly possessed by one of the ghosts from The Further, which means the movie had little choice but to pick right up where it left off. Renai (Rose Byrne) is understandably suspicious of him (as are the police), and the movie thankfully doesn't waste much time letting us know that he IS indeed "evil" (they also could have settled the matter quickly and moved on to something else, a la Halloween 5, so I'm glad they stuck with the "Dad is bad" angle), and so the movie is mostly about trying to find out who has possessed him and why, and how to get the real Josh back. Naturally, this means a lot of exposition and "new developments", and (spoiler?) also means a new villain - while Joe Bishara has come back as composer, the "Lipstick Demon" does not reappear, unfortunately. The new villain is creepy enough I guess, but lacks the iconic appearance of its predecessor, and since his/her screentime is limited with Wilson taking the bulk of the villain work, it never feels like a fully formed nemesis. Oddly, the new villain's backstory does involve the misapplication of lipstick, so it wouldn't have taken much revising to turn it into an origin story of sorts and bring him back, but either they wanted to save that for later or just move on entirely so that we know that the residents of The Further all have their own crazy stories to tell.

Horror fans should have a field day with the references to past work, some more overt than others. Hershey is watching Carnival of Souls at one point, and if you look real fast you'll spot Dalton (the kid who got taken in the first film) reading Turn of the Screw - and yes, both of those narratives are about something similar and no I won't tell you if it's foreshadowing anything about the movie. The goddamn Linda Vista shows up, almost like a rite of passage for a horror film at this point, but I was much more impressed with the use of the famous Smith Estate, aka "the Spider Baby house" for Hershey's home, which is where most of it takes place (in another nod to Poltergeist II, that's where they live now; their home is said to be busy with police activity). And there's a slight bit of Psycho to the villain's backstory, but not the aspect usually lifted (it might be more accurate to refer to it as a nod to Psycho IV). But they're all quick and unmentioned; apart from Carnival of Souls (since it's playing on a TV) I'm sure they'd all go over a typical audience member's head if they noticed them at all - to them Grandma will just have a cool looking house.

Afterward Devin claimed that they "Saw'd" the movie, to which I agreed (though he meant it as a diss - I say it as a compliment!). There's a fun scene in the 3rd act where we see an event from the first film through the perspective of a "new" character (trying to avoid spoiling the specifics), which leads to the "Oh that's what REALLY happened" sort of reveal that the Saw films tended to rely on in the sequels (ironically, more often in the ones that Wan/Whannell had no involvement with, but whatever), and there are lots of flashbacks and scenes of people looking through old files and what not. As you might expect, this "crowds" the film a bit and doesn't leave as much time for good ol' fashioned scare sequences - I only got a single jolt this time around, as opposed to 2-3 in the original (and much more uneasiness). The goofy approach deflates some of the tension, and since Wilson has played so many pushover characters (even his Hard Candy villain was a spineless loser) it's easier to laugh at his more evil scenes than get really scared by them. To be fair, Wan seems to understand this and almost plays it for laughs (he's standing so menacingly in a doorway for no reason at one point, it HAS to be intentionally funny), but with many younger viewers probably looking at the first film the way folks my age look at Poltergeist (and/or how our parents see The Haunting), they might be a bit disappointed when they realize that the creative team wasn't out to "top" their first film in the scares department.

But here's the thing: Wan already did that 2 months ago with The Conjuring (also starring Wilson!). Given the sequel's need to pick up soon after the first, they couldn't wait too long to make it as the young actors would need to be replaced (always a bummer), and I'm sure Wan didn't intend to make three haunted house movies in a row (with two coming out months apart). So going on a slightly different path is the best move, I think - if you just want the scares, then go see Conjuring. If you liked the world and characters of the first film and feel like you can follow them on a new adventure, Insidious 2 should satisfy. And if you're just a fan of Wan's in general, then you should be happy that what seemed like two identical movies back to back ended up being pretty different. With so few horror offerings on the horizon (after this, the terrible-looking Carrie is the only wide release for the rest of the year), I for one am relieved that it's not the same old thing. It might not be for everyone, but I had fun with it (twice, in fact) and was never bored, which is all that I can ask from a sequel anyway.