Not sure how I let this movie pass me by, and it's unfortunate that I missed it as a candidate for last year's top picks, but it's better late than never, I suppose. Even if late means nearly 3 years late. It's been so long I've forgotten a lot of the first installment's story other than the basic elements (really, the only thing that stands out is that hulking ghost-dude pacing back and forth outside and then suddenly appearing inside the room!). In lieu of re-watching the first film, I decided to read the review I wrote--and, wow, I was pretty harsh. Judging by my words I was really put off by the film, which is interesting because I distinctly remember watching it again with a friend only to settle into its vibe and enjoy it. Fortunately, this second chapter chronologically (save for an opening exposition) picks up where the first left off, ties nicely back into its predecessor, and adds in some comedy, mostly courtesy of the paranormal-investigator duo Tucker (I can't recall any other horror movie where a character stands on someone's front porch eating a Hot Pocket!) and Specs.
As with Insidious, this flick bears the PG-13 rating, which allows hordes of young teens to pack theaters unsuspectingly, under the guise that they're indulging in the forbidden delights of seeing a horror movie. You see, from The Haunting of Molly Hartley to The Apparition to The Haunting in Connecticut, these movies are made to provide friends and dates something to do that makes them feel the thrill of being edgy--the novelty of being able to say, I'm going to see that new horror movie! Where movies like Insidious and Insidious: Chapter 2 stand apart, however, is that they actually pack in real scares (that insane moment when a Russell Brand lookalike runs from the closet, for one), at least in my opinion (there will always be the "tough guy" who brags that the movies were too stupid or boring and not scary). Both films do a great job maintaining an intense unnerving current from start to finish, with jolt after jolt after jolt all the way through. Even though you "know it's coming," you still jump.
Indeed, the films are visually and aurally striking. I noticed this time around the extensive use of red (the now-iconic INSIDIOUS title letters, the red gate, the red glass window, etc.), blue, and green lighting, in the manner of an Argento film like Suspiria. The interior set of these houses is superb (the entire film takes place within 3 houses) for a movie like this. The angles are wide and the camera is constantly sweeping and moving (as in parts of Chernobyl Diaries, a movie which I really need to re-watch and review), but there are so many rooms and doorways and long corridors that the compositions get creative with blocking and ghostly gags. As for the aural dimension of the film, we get the same excruciating synth-stings as the first film, which, for me, are highly effective. I can hear those chilling piano notes right now. Every time they resound (and they resound often), the volume seems to jump to the level of cable TV commercials! I used to view musical stings as cheating, but this proves that they can still be effective--even for someone who prefers minimalism or nonexistence in a horror score.
Insidious: Chapter 2 offers more than mere aesthetics; it continues the story of Insidious interestingly and entertainingly. It not only adds to the story; it continually reaches back into the first movie (yes, we get clips from the first) and beyond (we get younger versions of the principal characters; nice to see Jocelin Donahue of The Burrowers and The House of the Devil continuing her career!) to augment scenes and sequences. My guess is that, even if you're put off by all the movie's gimmicks, you will at least be pleased by the way its story is woven into even minor pieces of the first. In fact, in one case, a little bit from the first movie that really put me off is retold with the context of this movie, and now I want to go back and watch both movies again! (Remember me saying that the one thing that stuck out is that hulking ghost-dude? Well, I think they banked on that being the part that struck most people.) Then, at the end, they reintroduce that eerie splintering noise that chilled me the first time around, but then cut to black before we, too, could behold the horror Elise sees (yes, Insidious 3 has already been announced).
The movie is an absolute thrill-ride from start to finish, though I must admit that the incessant jolts and jumps and change-ups start to wear thin during the final act--I found myself nodding off and wishing they'd go ahead and wrap it up. Luckily, the large majority of the movie achieves a great balance between clever, staying true to the franchise they've started, and thrilling. I didn't take to the Insidious brand the first time, but the second viewing and now my time spent with the second installment has left me a fan. My hope is that they don't let it fall into careless hands and fall apart. Remember, you can't depend on a name alone. But, whatever happens, we at least have 2 strong entries that stand apart from all the large-audience-targeting offerings out there.