Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Cinema File #252: "Insidious: Chapter 2" Review

Okay, I have to warn you right off the bat, this review is going to contain at least a few major spoilers for the film Insidious: Chapter 2. If you haven't seen it and care enough about the twists and turns involved, you probably want to skip this one. I'll still try to be as oblique as possible, but there's really no way that I can adequately relate to you all the things I liked and didn't like about this film without giving away key plot details, mostly by referencing the many other, much better films this movie shamelessly rips off. In my defense, its not exactly the kind of movie that really hinges on surprise outside of the placement of the jump scares which I have no need to reveal, and really, if you've seen the trailers or the first movie, I can't think of much I can spoil that you couldn't have guessed already. Still, you've been warned.

Insidious: Chapter 2 continues the story of the Lambert family, still under constant threat from supernatural evil following the events of the previous film. Have you ever noticed how most horror sequels don't actually directly follow the films that precede them? Its a common practice that I think owes mostly to the genre's preoccupation with shocking twist endings that the ensuing films would rather not have to address. I've always thought this was kind of a cheat, especially with more modern movies that tend to rely on increasingly implausible twist endings that would otherwise beg for further explanation. To its credit, the new Insidious does what few of its contemporaries are willing to do, dealing with the consequences of where the story last left us, rather than just repeating the same tropes with a different family. Unfortunately, that's about all the praise I can give it.

For the record, I didn't really enjoy the first Insidious all that much either. I didn't hate it, but for the most part I found it to be a bland, middle of the road haunted house movie, essentially what we would later see in the director's follow up The Conjuring, with much less polish, and without the condescending "based on a true story" nonsense I still can't get over. My biggest problem with Insidious was one I find often with horror movies based on supernatural evil, specifically the lack of clearly defined rules to connect the hodge podge of horror tropes into something meaningful and suspenseful. If I can't understand how this stuff works, I'm left with the assumption that basically anything can happen, and thus there is no tension, as if the entire movie took place in a dream world or a cartoon. Insidious: Chapter 2 shares this problem, though perhaps not to the same extent, more heavily emphasizing some other, more annoying issues.

I haven't seen the first film since it came out in 2011, a long enough span of time for me to forget many of the crucial details you'll need to remember to enjoy this film, but one thing I'm sure I would remember is the tone, and I don't recall the last movie being this deliberately goofy. Don't get me wrong, I laughed quite a bit at the original movie, but then I don't think I was necessarily supposed to, and at the time I was actually surprised that a director who showed such a dark sense of humor with Saw would make a movie with so little of it. With Insidious 2, I get my wish I guess, but I sure wish I hadn't. This time around, the two goony assistant paranormal researchers who I almost forgot were even in the first movie are now unforgettable, and not in a good way. Even scenes that in the last film were played for scares seem to be purposely structured to undercut any potential shock value with a joke or odd, off kilter performance. I wouldn't be so surprised if I hadn't just seen James Wan step up his game so much only a few months ago.

The biggest problem though is the plot, which is where my lengthy spoiler warning above comes in. The first Insidious was basically a modern-day take on Poltergeist, a kid assaulted by amorphous supernatural creatures aided by a creepy old lady expert in psychic phenomena. The next one takes its cue from the last five minutes of its predecessor, shifting the threat and the focus to the father to basically jump franchises to The Shining. Not bad in and of itself, and kind of clever to be honest, but instead of focusing on the struggle of a man trying to keep his sanity while possessed, we get another adventure into "The Further," and because the novelty of just being there isn't enough anymore, now we have to learn the amazing backstory of the evil ghost lady. The result is, well, I'd say laughable, but really it just kinda pissed me off.

First off, its never really clear just which ghost we're really dealing with. It's implied to be the one from the end of the previous film, but then we learn she had a son who was a serial killer and is actually the ghost possessing the father, even though that goes against everything we saw in the last film and pretty much everything leading up to the reveal in this one. So we have a sort of ghostly Psycho Norman Bates dynamic in our Shining rip off, and then in the third act the truth of their relationship is revealed, and guess what it is. It's fucking Sleepaway Camp. Again. How is it I've been reviewing movies online for less than a year and I've already encountered two movies that stole their twists from an obscure 80's slasher movie only well-known for how completely stupid its twist is? And its so unnecessary! It ultimately adds nothing to what you already know about these two characters unless the idea of crossdressing is abhorrent to you, which is why this twist is so vile in the first place.

I had a lot of problems with the larger implications of Wan's last film The Conjuring, but at the end of the day, even I had to admit that it was a well made example of a Haunted House movie. It didn't re-invent the wheel, and I would have preferred something new and different, but at least it did what it set out to do well, which is really all you can ask for. Insidious: Chapter 2 lazily shoots for something mildly unique before realizing it doesn't have the patience for it and settles in to stealing from much better movies, and doing a generally terrible job at it. As in the previous film, the one lone stand out is the returning Lynn Shaye, who is obviously too good for this movie, and obviously knows it. Luckily, the already greenlit Chapter 3 seems to be set up to feature her character more prominently and in a context that might actually force the producers to do something halfway original. Not that I'm expecting too much mind you, at least based on this one.

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