Let’s face it: decent modern horror films are hard to come by. Striking the balance between tension, genuine scares and an original storyline is something that has largely eluded mainstream cinema in recent years, which explains why a lot of horror films fail to make it to the big screen and are fast-tracked to DVD before you can say ‘I’ll just go and check the basement out’.
James Wan has had mixed form up to this point. The Australian is best known for his role as co-creator of the dreadful Saw franchise (and director of its first installment); movies that were huge money-spinners, movies that caught the imagination of the multiplex masses, but not exactly the sort of art that a filmmaker would want to have quoted on their epitaph.
And then along came Insidious. A film that impudently borrowed from the golden age of horror – from the Hammer-style title to the superb Bernard Herrmann-esque score and sound effects – it was a revelation of the modern genre. Not without its flaws, certainly (the last third in particular saw the story majorly lose its way), but it was nevertheless a compelling narrative about a young family whose son’s talent for ‘astral projection’ leaves his body exposed to a host of malevolent ghosts and a scary red-faced demon, all of which want to possess him. Far-fetched? I’ll say, and that’s without going into ‘The Further’, the purgatory-style no-man’s-land where the dead supposedly wander around waiting for an ‘in’ back to the world of the living. Still, the film’s slow-building, creepy nature and multitude of clever jumps made for a hugely entertaining mainstream horror and Wan’s promising work on The Conjuring earlier this year only served to heighten the anticipation for this sequel.
We pick up the story a day after the original film’s cliffhanger ending. Medium Elise has been murdered, but by whom? A series of pale-faced and hollow-cheeked apparitions in floaty dresses continue to stalk the Lambert family, but who is responsible? And has dad (Patrick Wilson) really been possessed by the ghost of the old woman that stalked him as a child?
When the film’s opening flashback plays out like a scene from a bad TV movie (with added bad vocal dubbing) it’s not a great omen, and things swiftly go from bad to worse. Goofy paranormal investigative duo Specs (played by screenwriter Leigh Whannell) and Tucker might have provided brief moments of comic relief in the first installment, but here they are simply irritating, given too much screen time and too many slapstick one-liners that disrupt momentum and shatter the potential for the scant edge-of-seat moments that do exist. As Wilson’s Josh finds himself drawn further into the darkness, he makes his best attempt to channel his inner Jack Nicholson-in-The-Shining, but his clenched jaw and thousand-yard stare is more ticklish than threatening. The eye-rolling plot is unnecessarily convoluted; previously, the concept of ‘The Further’ was used sparingly to enhance the story, but Chapter 2′s overuse of flashbacks and dry ice mean that various characters are sent on wild goose chases through abandoned hospitals, numerous haunted houses and yes, ‘The Further’, in order to solve the mystery and save the day. The use of deceased medium Elise as some sort of Derek Acorah-style spirit guide is the icing on an already stale cake: there is even, unbelievably, a scene where a character is pushed out of the way of a falling chandelier.
Most disappointingly of all, the scares simply aren’t there. Where there was craft and a distinct style to Insidious, Chapter 2 is rambling, repetitive and unintentionally hilarious at times. In any case, it makes a strong argument against sequels. Yeah, yeah, I know: we should have learned our lesson from Saw, it’s our own fault, etc., etc. Wan recently claimed that he was moving on from the horror genre; on the basis of this limp effort, it’s probably for the best.