Would it be farcical to say I found the second chapter of James Wan's Insidious films to be more frightening than his runaway summer hit, The Conjuring? Most people seem to have found that film to be the breakout horror flick they've been waiting for to rejuvenate the genre, but while it was a nice exercise in the standard set-ups of haunted house flicks Wan and his creative team have found a way to make a film that both legitimately continues the story from the first film while providing authentic scares that are hard to come by these days with Insidious: Chapter 2. It is important to know that I very much enjoyed the first film, but was somewhat disappointed in what direction it decided to go. I thought the first half was well staged and set up an interesting dynamic between Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne's husband and wife that had them going down a path they never saw their lives taking after their oldest son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), slips into a coma for no apparent reason. That these fears and unexpected turns were amplified by the fact there was clearly something creepy going on with their made for an eloquent yet horrific family haunting. The scares were blunt and startling, but they never took over the sense of care we developed for the family at least until the last half hour of the film when it went into overdrive and just piled on the people in mountains of make-up and gothic costumes to the point it was more humorous than scary. I didn't buy into the strangeness of "the further" as it seemed too great a tonal shift from the quieter, grey-hued family study I thought we were getting that would elicit fear from the presented scenario. With all of that in mind I went into this second chapter with none too high expectations, but a good amount of interest as at least the first film gave us a cliffhanger of an ending that we could hold out hope for something to justify the weirdness that the latter half of the first film introduced. For me, Chapter 2 did more than justify the need for explanation as it delivers both plenty of new elements while cleverly revealing reasoning for some of the questions left over from the first one. Not to mention being one of, if not the scariest theater experiences I've had in a long time.

From left: Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), Josh (Patrick Wilson), Dalton (Ty Simpkins)
and Renae (Rose Byrne) in Insidious: Chapter 2.
Picking up right were the first film left off with only a preface of young Josh Lambert's foray into "the further" Insidious: Chapter 2 wastes no time in letting us know that this will be a full on frightfest from minute one. If you haven't seen the first film and plan on going to see this one you should know that for the first few minutes you'll likely be lost as to what is going on. I'm sure the average person will be able to piece together most of what occurred to the point they understand what is going on presently throughout the rest of the film, but it really is essential to have seen Insidious to get the full affect of what Wan and writer Leigh Whannell have done here. At the end of the first film Josh (Wilson) decided to return to "the further" for the first time since he was a young boy in order to rescue his son, but though he accomplished this he came face to face with the old woman in the black wedding gown that haunted him as a child. We are led to believe Josh made it out of "the further" with no harm done, but when he seemingly strangles paranormal expert Elise (Lin Shaye) it is clear something went wrong. We are forced to now watch as this dead and demented bride's spirit walks around in the living world through Josh's physical body. His wife, Renai (Byrne), and mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) sense there is something different about their husband and son, but don't know what to believe or what they could possibly do about it without Elise alive to help them. This leads to the film being part murder mystery part thriller but a ride of persistent tension through and through. The anxiety in the packed theater was palpable even as the film would cut from one shot to the next. These were no longer simple transitions, but reason for Wan to assure that his audience was on high alert and never bored. There is too much to spoil by going into any more detail, but Whannel who along with Angus Sampson provide the comic relief of the film as Specs and Tucker also finds interesting ways to bring back Shaye's Elise and flush out the details of why these things are happening to this particular family and rationalizes a world that I previously found to be too offbeat to buy into.

For me, what made this film rise above normal sequels and above the first one is the fact that it wasn't content in simply picking up where the last one left off and going chronologically through another story that did little more than mirror what we saw the first time around. Over the past few years sequels have definitely become much better about pushing a story forward rather than simply existing as a cash grab, but here there is a real effort to tell a complete story and that comes through in both the execution and the writing. With how that first film concluded this second one is immediately strapped with higher stakes and that feeling is held strong for the entire run time only stalling in the final act when some of the measures taken to ensure all plot holes are tied up turned out feeling more forced than essential. That said, the story takes us into the past before the events of the first film, through the middle of the events we saw prior and past them into the present where the horrors that came to light in the Lambert house are still being dealt with. In that it does pick up right where the first film left off and we are thrust right back into the action Chapter 2 differs from the standard horror film by not giving the audience or its cast members a first act that allows them to realize something strange is going on. This structural shift is a pleasant diversion and a key reason Wan is allowed to go off the rails with his jump scares. While the first film slickly set up its scares not by musical cues or bursts from the dark, but rather influenced by the fluid camera movement this sequel takes it to a whole other level. The camera is a roving ghost in its own right as it glides effortlessly through structures and "the further" around characters that give us both the interesting look Wan delivered in the first film while breathing down our necks with mystery as to where we should look when it settles into its framing. Every time the camera was held in a single position for more than a few seconds my eyes began to search every inch of the screen for a hint of where the next scare might come from. It is cause for a stressful experience, but it also means Wan is doing his job and not only delivering the chilling story from the script but improving upon it by knowing what he needs to do in order to make his audience watch their backs and flinch at every noise after they walk out of the theater.

Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) continue to investigate the paranormal.
A testament to the lightening in a bottle effect Wan inspired with his first film, Chapter 2 has the entire cast returning from the original. Most notably is Patrick Wilson who is asked to pull double duty here playing the regular version of his character who is trapped in the darkness of "the further" as well as his possessed alter-ego in the real world. As the film goes on and this dead soul isn't able to fully accommodate itself to Josh's living and breathing body due to the fact he has not yet killed the rest of Josh's family who are trying to save him, the outer shell of Josh's body begins to look more and more like its inhabitant. It is not only the physical transformation that Wilson makes though, but the demeanor that had me more and more impressed with how much range this guy truly has. He convincingly becomes this monster of a man while eliciting authentic emotion and a completely different aura about himself when the next scene would cut to him in "the further". While this expansion of Josh's role in the story allows for Wilson to play an interesting arc it also shortchanges the always welcome presence of Rose Byrne. I feel as if Byrne had much more to do in the first film and there she was only existing as the weeping mother over her sick sons lifeless body. She has little to do here but run from one end of the room to the other and look completely frightened every time she hears a noise coming from the opposite side of the house. While it is a shame a presence such as Byrne's is wasted the film does do an excellent job of providing the character of Lorraine much more depth and Barbara Hershey essentially takes Elise's spot in leading Specs and Tucker along with former Elise companion Carl (Steve Coulter) on the hunt for who this "Black Bride" was when they were alive and what caused them to latch onto her son after they passed away. That is not to count out Lin Shaye who thankfully returns despite her gruesome demise in the last film and is able to explore a new side of her character as she is now only able to exist in "the further". Whannell and Sampson provide solid comic relief as well, but not to the point that it overrides the sense of tension and chilling tone that blankets the film. I was almost afraid it might come to overshadow the spookiness of what was going on from time to time, but Wan carefully balances when to fool the audience into feeling slightly comfortable by making them giggle only to pull them right back out of that comfort zone and into hair-raising territory once again. Insidious: Chapter 2 is, for me, hands down the scariest movie of the year and though Wan will be taking a break from the genre for the time being I sincerely hope he returns one day if not to craft his take on original stories, but for Chapter 3: Farther into the Further.

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