‘Insidious: Chapter 2′ represents that fabled step back

Patrick Wilson (opposite a scary ambiguous figure) returns for "Insidious: Chapter 2." Credit: Matt Kennedy
Patrick Wilson (opposite a scary ambiguous figure) returns for “Insidious: Chapter 2.”
Credit: Matt Kennedy

‘Insidious: Chapter 2′
Director: James Wan
Stars: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

Over the last few years, the director James Wan has made great strides in atoning for his debut, “Saw.” Starting with “Insidious” and continuing with this July’s “The Conjuring,” he’s been honing his craft, reviving a dormant subgenre — the haunted house picture — and bringing back old school, wholly analogue frights. There are no digital effects in either film — just prowling camerawork, creaking floorboards, practical effects … and the occasional, unfortunate boo effect brought about by SUDDEN LOUD NOISES.

Following two mighty steps forward, “Insidious: Chapter 2” is that fabled step back. It might have been silly to simply repeat the charms of the first, which Wan essentially did already, only better, with “The Conjuring.” But “Chapter 2” takes the series in the wrong direction: from simple (if mildly convoluted) ghost movie to deep, borderline impenetrable mythology. Did you know there was a deeper backstory to the ghoul that latched onto the Lamberts? Did you really need to know more about that alternate spirit world, depicted as somewhere between The Black Lodge on “Twin Peaks” and a rural haunted house in Nowhere, America, complete with excess fog machines?

This time, it’s dad (Patrick Wilson) who’s troubled. At the end of the first, he seemed to be possessed by a homicidal demon, who strangled the token creepy psychic hero (Lin Shaye). This second installment picks right up, with mom (Rose Byrne) and Wilson’s own mom (Barbara Hershey) very, very slowly realizing that he’s no longer who he once was, and may be pretty good with a knife.

There’s a great sequel in here somewhere, which plays more with a family’s trust in its own members being violated. But the script (by sometime cohort Leigh Whannel, who reprises his supporting role) is a jumble — a mishmash of spinning plates barely kept in the air. It tries to milk the creepy dad angle for chills and blatant ripoffs of “The Shining,” all while delving into the ghost baddies’ secret origins. With all the business going on, there’s hardly any time left for actual scares.

More important, it doesn’t — like “The Conjuring” — give Wan much chance to show off. He’s too busy with plot to really dig into scenes, which are about exposition first, frights a distant second. It assumes what we want is a deeper understanding (superficially speaking) of its world. What we need is more chances to bite our nails and dig our elbows into the ribs of the person sitting next to us. Perhaps that will be “Chapter 3,” leaving this the traditional doughy middle.


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