Tiptoe through the tulips
During a sorry era where even dull, clichéd mainstream creations such as Paranormal Activity were being lauded, James Wan’s exceptional Insidious emerged as a timely reminder of the quality audiences should expect from a horror film. Wan’s bold horror was fully deserving of its critical and financial triumphs, but no amount of success could quell audiences’ fears when a sequel was announced. Unlike his Saw franchise, that grew weaker with every subsequent release, Wan returns to direct a terrifying follow up that lives up to the expectations of its predecessor.
After forming an impressive filmmaking partnership with a captivating feature length translation of their nine-minute horror short in 2004, James Wan and Leigh Whannell had relatively quiet careers, at least in the time leading up to Insidious. Having succeeded with Saw the duo relinquished their control of the franchise to pursue other projects. They remained involved with Saw in reduced roles and ensured that the first few sequels were entertaining, but not even their influence could save that sinking ship. Perhaps in fear of seeing history repeat itself, the Australian duo return with a larger budget and the knowledge gained from their experiences in the early stages of their career to deliver an impressive sequel that maintains the momentum and matches the tone and style of the original.
Like Insidious before it, the success of Insidious: Chapter 2 is due to Wan’s fundamental understanding of how to scare an audience. With the aid of cinematographer John R. Leonetti and composer Joseph Bishara, Wan employs his unique horror style that blends the subtleties of traditional horror techniques with their more overt contemporary counterparts. The result is a film that evokes the dreamlike eeriness of a nightmare and the frantic shocks of a haunted house ride to create a fully involving horror experience.
Predictable and all too frequent in most horrors, the jump scare is seen as a cheap trick for a filmmaker to guarantee scares from an audience, but it’s an area where Wan excels like no other. The Australian director plays on the sense of predictability by bending the convention to manipulate the audience. He focuses his attention on the tension that occurs in the heart stopping seconds building up to a seemingly inevitable jump scare, but often delays the final scare to an excruciating degree leaving the audience vulnerable to his next trick. Wan is a puppet master constantly pulling the strings of even the most hardened and desensitised horror veteran.
In following on directly from where its predecessor left off, the narrative appears conventional for a sequel, but this relatively simple plot is elevated by daring complexity. Whannell weaves an intelligent, chronology-shifting narrative that dips into the original film to provide explanations and different viewpoints for the less logical scenes. Where other sequels feel like mere remakes of their predecessors with bigger budgets and less imagination, Insidious: Chapter 2 is as much a continuation of previous form as it is an entirely new film in its own right.
With the relative stability of a more sensible Whannell narrative, Wan is given license to improve on the few shortcomings in his original and make slight alterations to his style that sees varying results. The ballsy, off the rails approach that was key to its predecessor’s charm is replaced with more subtle horror techniques that lack Insidious’ appeal, but certainly nourish a thoroughly chilling atmosphere.
While the positives of switching to a more restrained approach are clear, the problems with Insidious don’t lie with tone or style, which is why the improvements to the dialogue and performances are more beneficial to his sequel. The exposition and cheesiness of the original script is replaced by more natural dialogue that secures a less grating experience. The cast take advantage of a stronger script and longer screentime to deliver impressive performances; with the standout coming from highly underrated Patrick Wilson who channels Jack Nicholson’s iconic Jack Torrance to deliver a truly menacing and frightening performance.
With Insidious: Chapter 2 Wan has created a sequel that is in many respects stronger than its predecessor, yet for all of his tinkering it isn’t as enjoyable or memorable. In fixing the errors he’s created a more well rounded film, but one that has lost a portion of its predecessor’s charm. Still, this ambitious piece of filmmaking remains a fine example of how to create a sequel and the two collaborators have delivered another daring and unique experience and in doing so ensured that their Insidious franchise is one that audiences will be eager to return to again.