You know that scene from The Simpsons where Bart and Lisa ride through one of those carnival haunted-house rides and it turns out to be really busted? It’s lacking anything scary. Or anything at all for that matter. A scream greets them; they hear they squeal of a tape rewinding; and the scream repeats. A coffin opens to reveal only a spring, as a canned “I vahnt your blood” sounds. A skeleton drops from the ceiling accompanied by the sound of a donkey braying. Lisa side-eyes Bart and says, “That was just confusing.” James Wan’s Insidious Chapter 2 is the cinematic equivalent of that ride, the Screamatorium of Dr. Frightmarestein. It's not very scary. It's just confusing.
I almost admire it for at least trying to do something different. Incoherent nonsense is refreshing compared to Wan’s straightforward and detrimentally familiar last film, The Conjuring, which just sort of chewed up and spit out tropes from the current wave of haunted-house and exorcism movies. At least Insidious Chapter 2’s influences are less predictable: Here we see elements of The Shining, Sleepaway Camp, V/H/S, and the original Carnival of Souls, which plays on a TV as Barbara Hershey’s character sleeps. It carries over, somewhat, its 2010 predecessor's main reference-mine, Poltergeist (which Insidious infused with astral projection for maximum loopiness). Also back is the high-camp flair of the first film. Shrieking strings assault your ears as characters mug their emotions.
If I wanted to summarize this film, I don’t know where I would begin or end, given that it plays with two timelines. One is the linear further adventures of the Lambert family, plagued by spiritual invaders taking over members’ bodies. The other takes place in the beyond from which those spiritual invaders hail, where jumping through time and space is as easy as walking into the next room. The family patriarch, Josh (Patrick Wilson), spends his time there, while a malignant spirit controls him in the linear world. This is revealed mid-movie, even though we already knew that’s what was happening at the end of the first Insidious. A circuitous route to the obvious forms the structure of Insidious Chapter 2. Medium Elise (who died in the first movie, but can return here because of the partial spirit-world setting) advises Josh, “Use her memories to draw her out of her vessel so that you can get back to your body,” whatever that means.
While Josh's wife Renai (Rose Byrne) contends with his possessed body, managing to be both right all along and a total dolt (the reveal that all of us–including her–already knew hits her the hardest, per her saucer eyes), into the beyond-the-beyond he goes. He visits his childhood, and the childhood of the spirit that has taken over his body (a serial killer named Parker). He revisits events of the first movie, in perhaps the most needless exposition a horror movie like this has ever offered. (The strange knocking that occurred in the first film? It was Josh’s spirit! Now you know.)
It’s a lot of fancy footwork to distract you from the fact that Wan and returning writer Leigh Whannell have very little to say, and might not even know what they’re doing. In a climactic moment, Parker's mommie dearest (the root of all of Parker’s problems for making him dress like a girl as a child and calling him “Marilyn”) is knocked on the head with a rocking horse by Elise. This causes Josh, whose body is being controlled by Parker, to drop the hammer he’s about to bludgeon with. I don’t exactly understand how this works, except maybe by harming the memory of Parker’s mother, it affects Parker, whose spirit is controlling Josh? Inception this isn’t.
As usual, Wan uses a lot of slick camera work that if nothing else distinguishes him as the premiere mainstream horror stylist of his time. Wan is a sanitized, PG-13-pandering mix of Italian-horror maestros Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, and the fast-and-loose approach to logic reminded me most of the latter’s borderline abstract grindhouse zombie trash from 1981, The Beyond.
Insidious Chapter 2, though, has zero eye-gougings, unfortunately. The post-credits shot of Renai discussing Elise’s death with a cop as the camera closes in for over a minute, seemingly starting from 100 yards away, is as gorgeous as it is pointless. “I’m not interested in ghosts,” says the aforementioned cop. “I’m interested in the living people who create them.” I can relate. They seem like a bunch of weirdos.