United States. 105 minutes. Directed by James Wan, 2013. Starring Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, Barbara Hershey, Steve Coulter.

Insidious: Chapter 2 picks up where its predecessor left off: with paranormal investigator Elise Rainer murdered, seemingly at the hands of Josh Lambert, who’s returned from “the Further” (a spirit-realm existing between the corporeal world and the afterlife, from which he rescued his son Dalton from a demon) apparently possessed by a malevolent female spirit. What does this spirit have to do with “the Dark Bride,” a serial killer who killed numerous young women in the mid-’80s? Is there a connection between this incident and another paranormal incident Josh experienced as a child? And can Josh’s wife Renai, with the help of Dalton, mother-in-law Lorraine and several of Elise’s ghosthunting associates, save her husband before the dark spirit destroys the Lambert family?

A sequel to the overrated if enjoyable Insidious was probably inevitable, and not just because the first film ended on such an obvious cliffhanger.

With the original’s creative team–director/co-screenwriter James Wan and co-screenwriter Leigh Whannell–returning, it’s probably not a surprise that Insidious: Chapter 2 serves up a lot more of the same. The mood of Whannell and Wan’s screenplay alternates between balls-to-the-wall terror and high camp, and is unabashedly reminiscent of a classic haunting movie (Poltergeist in the case of the first film, The Shining this time around) while Wan’s direction is typified by the stark visuals and reliance on perfectly-executed jump-scares that have marked his post-Saw work.

Insidious hardly had a consistently serious tone, thanks to the comic-relief characters of Tucker and Specs and the villain physically modeled after Darth Maul–but with Chapter 2, Wan and Whannell pump up the goofiness quotient to a level where it almost borders on a horror-comedy. It’s not exactly Evil Dead II but there are several instances where you can see the filmmakers having a choice between going scary and going funny, and choosing to go funny. Matters aren’t helped by some of the goofy, out-of-left-field plot developments (time-traveling ghosts? Really?) and the unintentionally hilariously bad performances of Danielle Bisutti and Tom Fitzpatrick as the evil spectral entities.

Wan’s direction isn’t as effective as his last couple of efforts, as well. While the Further sequences are beautiful, easily the best thing in the film in a visual sense, the scare scenes are just…sloppy. I know better than to expect subtlety and restraint from Wan (although he’s certainly capable of it), but in several scenes he bludgeons the audience into submission with his scares, much like a bully whitewashing a victim’s face with a snowball. I understand that this is what Wan does, but in this case I think he went too far–I simply didn’t find the scares scary; I probably would have if he’d dialed it back just a bit.

(And speaking of dialing it back just a bit–please, somebody tell Joseph Bishara, who’s scored Wan’s last three films, to quit spreading his manipulative, annoying aural sludge across film soundtracks like so much marshmallow fluff. They’re starting to give me a migraine.)

Flawed as these elements are, it’s certainly possible to have fun with Chapter 2 as long as you’re not willing to take it as seriously as its predecessor, and in one vital category–the performances–the sequel actually improves upon the original. Patrick Wilson (Josh) is much more effective as a villain than a hero. Rose Byrne (Renai) and Barbara Hershey (Lorraine) are a terrific and engaging female leads without any of the Moms Who Kick Ass clichés. Between these three, the reduced role of Lin Shaye (Elise) isn’t felt as keenly, although she always steals the show when she’s onscreen. There’s also a great performance by Steve Coulter, who plays the film’s only significant new character, Carl, a medium who used to work with Elise. Hell, even Whannell and Angus Sampson, who play Elise’s geeky ex-assistants Specs and Tucker, aren’t as annoying here as they were in the first film.

There’s no doubt that Insidious: Chapter 2 doesn’t compare well to the first chapter (and it really doesn’t compare well to The Conjuring, another Wan-directed, Wilson-led film released barely two months ago that features similar characters doing similar things in response to a similar premise), but it’s not a complete wash. It’s enough of a piece with its predecessor that, unless you’re dismayed by the silliness of some of the developments or disappointed that it didn’t strike out in a bold new direction, it should have enough to offer fans of the original, so that it doesn’t go down in horror history as one of the really dud sequels.

insidious chapter 2 poster

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