What have we learned from director Wan and screenwriter/actor Leigh Whannell over the past (very lucky, for them) decade? Since the duo first kicked off a genuine resurgence in goregasm filmmaking (2004’s Saw and its sequels) and the more outré sort of "gotcha!" neo-haunted-housers (Wan’s The Conjuring), the prodigious pair – along with Paranormal Activity alum Oren Peli – have re-animated the genre shocker as a Saturday-night date-clincher. And that's no small feat; hormonal teenagers everywhere have rejoiced ever since. (Peli, by the way, produced both Insidious films.)
Personally, I have a love/loathe relationship with their output, ranging from genuinely impressed (The Conjuring) to deeply depressed (the lackadaisical Insidious). Insidious: Chapter 2 is perhaps an even more scattershot mess than its predecessor. Whannell's script is so rife with portentous backstory, third-act goofiness, and a denouement that practically screams Insidious 3: Same Old Shit, that the film as a whole is jarring, and not in a good way. An early shot of Herk Harvey's 1962 Carnival of Souls telegraphs pretty much everything you need to know going in, but whereas the amateur/industrial filmmaker Harvey's dreamy masterpiece crafted low-budget unease (so much so that the film is now part of The Criterion Collection), Insidious: Chapter 2 is all smoke and mirrors – with a confusing paucity of the shadows therein. It's effective at times, but utterly overbusy, setting up plot points for future films and tripping daisies over an afterlife which is, at best, difficult to decipher.
Speaking of which, Wilson, Byrne, and Simpkins return as the haunted Lambert family. Whannell and Sampson also crop back up, to comic effect, as paranormal investigators Specs and Tucker. And Barbara Hershey, channeling the recently departed horror icon Karen Black, remanifests as well. Hershey is the most thrilling, human thing about this film.
So what have we learned from Wan, Whannell, and their new/old horror recipes? One: You can never overquote Robert Wise's The Haunting too much. Two: Never look in the mirror, and never, ever move into a craggy, Charles Addams-esque manse. Three: Never have children. Spawn more than one and the next thing you know you're living in The Village of the Damned. Also of note: Shock cuts and jangly music cues will forever cause your date to rise three inches in her seat and throw her arms around you. Not a bad thing at all, of course, but rarely requisite for a film intended to rattle your head and blow your soul away. It's easy enough to put nightmares on the big screen. It's far more formidable to plant the seeds of madness in your mind, to be carried in a cocoon of aftershock – black baggage and all – for days, weeks, months, a lifetime.