I remember very clearly when Hollywood didn’t know how to do a real horror movie. Of course we all do; it only started to end barely ten years ago. It was all blood, chainsaws and clichéd demonology until the J-horror revolution crept on to the radars of American producers and gradually, they began to see another way of doing things. Remakes of Ring and Ju-On: The Grudge weren’t very good but at least showed that the West wanted to do horror more like the east; it was only a matter of time before they started using the ‘atmospheric’ formula to come up with their own ideas rather than copying others. They kind of had to, after all. Horror, like comedy, is a genre reliant on change and timing, always in danger of becoming stale otherwise.
Insidious (2011) was one of the major signs that some in Hollywood had learned what audiences had come to suspect – that violence and gore simply is no longer very scary for our desensitised culture – and relied as much on what it didn’t show us for its desired effect. It was, for my money, the best horror America had come up with in a long time. The irony was that its director, James Wan, was of Asian descent, showing that perhaps this style of horror film-making really does flow in the blood of the east.
Chapter 2 continues in the same vein, retaining the core of the main cast and production team from its predecessor; thankfully the film also retains its style because of this. From the opening credits as the camera pans around a familiar haunted house accompanied by Joseph Bishara’s unmistakable, understated musical score, those who remember the first movie will feel right at home in the most nerve-wracking sense, while anyone joining the story cold won’t be missing out on the unique atmosphere that brought us here.
Where the movies differ is in the direction they take from that point onwards. This film focuses on more grounded themes of domestic abuse and serial killing; the original was an eerie, old fashioned, haunted house horror flick. The result is a film that doesn’t feel more Western, but less. Its main antagonistic ‘spirit’ (for lack of another word) is a character with serious ‘mummy issues’, having been forced from infancy to dress as the opposite sex and carry out murders on her behalf; a twisted storyline more likely found in a weird Japanese movie than a mainstream Hollywood release.
Opening in flashback mode, we can see that the focus of Insidious 2 has switched from son Dalton to Father Josh in the Lambert family. The first ten minutes set up a story that twists back on itself on more than one occasion, even nodding back to a familiar sequence from the first film. Its inclusion of the spirit world known only as ‘The Further’ is made clearer than was the case previously; if Insidious had any weaknesses, it was that it simply went too deep for its average audience towards the end.
We see ‘The Further’ as more of a character itself, something that appears to be outside of the realms of time and space. But of course, as is usually the case in horror films like this, there are also numerous occasions that don’t make any sense. Like when Josh is walking in The Further with Carl (one of the investigators helping the family), and Carl is able to see something that Josh can’t: a fellow spirit. Why Josh cannot also see it is never explained. Other occasions are similar, perhaps hinting that spirits can choose when and to whom they show themselves.
Let’s be honest, though; you don’t come to a horror movie hoping that it makes total sense. You can’t help but admire everything else this film does. One of the great things about that aforementioned prologue sequence is that nothing much actually happens in it – you don’t see anything scary, nothing jumps out at you, and yet you’re scared anyway. The movie’s confidence at pulling you in, using incidental music to tease you into believing there’s something lurking in the shadows, and cranking up the tension but not giving you the pay-off because it knows you’ll be sticking around for later regardless is extremely admirable. That is something most American films will not do, or will try to do and fail, sending you away disappointed as a result. Most of the time, they will entice you to stay by giving you a major pay-off at the start (or even better; in the trailer) and promise ‘there’s more of this to come!’ But no. Not so here. Here, you will get the pay-offs when you least expect them, and you will be left wanting more.
Now, my reaction to the film was not entirely positive. There are moments when you feel like rolling your eyes because, of course, the movie still suffers from a few of the problems that the first one did: namely, that it’s an American movie. Therefore, there are times when too much attention is given to acting and characterisation when it could be giving more focus to the horror side of things. There’s an unnecessary need to not only provide story resolution at all costs, but to also set it up for another sequel, and the annoying habit of everything looking doomed only for someone to save the day at the last second. Then there’s the typical light-hearted side to it; escapist humour which shouldn’t really be in a movie like this but which audiences in the West probably need in order to deal with such an otherwise harrowing cinematic experience.
Overall, I’m willing to admit that I’m biased. I probably overrate this film, but with good reason. It’s because I can see what its intentions are, and I can see that, on the whole, it does what it does pretty well, without upsetting the audience too much in the process. Perhaps that’s a better outcome than what I’d propose: total horror in the style of Pulse (Kurosawa, 2001), which really has a lesson to teach but at the cost of no happy ending.
8 / 10.