Having inadvertently kicked off a trend of so-called “torture porn” pictures with his 2004 directorial debut, “Saw,” James Wan has since made a conscientious course correction between 2011’s “Insidious” and this summer’s “The Conjuring.” Before moving on to bigger and better things, though, Wan has cranked out “Insidious: Chapter 2,” guaranteeing another franchise’s surefire box-office legacy with a hearty helping of convoluted mythology and familiar frights.
After a 1986-set prologue plants the seeds for much retcon silliness, we pick up right where the first film left off: Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) have rescued eldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) from the otherworldly realm of “the Further,” but Josh didn’t return alone, as evidenced by the gruesome death of psychic medium Elise (Lin Shaye). Now, as the Lamberts’ home is being investigated, the family crashes with Josh’s mom (Barbara Hershey), only to discover that things are not as settled as they would seem.
From there on out, the usual supernatural hijinks ensue. Doors creak open on their own, ghostly apparitions appear in corners, children’s playthings come to life, etc. Did you like it before when Renai was startled by a baby monitor and had to hurry upstairs? How about when nursery rhymes earn an eerie rendition from sources unknown? Then you’re in luck. In fairness, “The Conjuring” sourced its spookiness from a similar bag of tricks, but even with Wan’s clear command of the material, the harsh digital lensing makes those gags feel hoarier and the increasing amount of metaphysical backtracking dilutes the few simple jolts that do work this time around.
Similarly, no one in the cast — which includes the return of dorky paranormal investigators Specs (co-writer Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) — steps out of their wide-eyed comfort zone save for Patrick Wilson, clearly having a ball in rare creep mode. As the first film tapped into sick-kid woes for some semblance of subtext, “Insidious: Chapter 2” lunges at spousal abuse to carry the same sort of dramatic weight, but the maneuver more effectively reminds one of “The Shining,” which doesn’t do any favors to a film that is already tied up with constantly reminding us of its own prologue, its own predecessor and, by extension, “Poltergeist” all over again.
Wan and Whannell’s screenplay is bound to the same mythological wheel-spinning that sunk the “Saw” and “Paranormal Activity” franchises, fleshing out backstory at the expense of suspense. The mood suffers with every explanation of why that particular door opened itself that one time, and despite a bigger budget (seemingly allotted strictly for the purchase of white sheets and fog machines), even real-world nighttime scenes carry the same chintzy look of adventures occurring within “the Further.” The addition of some lightly homophobic jokes between Tucker and Specs would be more easily forgiven were the chief villain not then saddled with a regrettably retrograde set of gender issues.
With that said, everything that’s backwards about this sequel cannot keep me from looking forward to where James Wan goes from here. Having clearly established his horror chops, I look forward to seeing him try his hand at something new for a change — that is to say, “Fast & Furious 7.”