In 2004, Director James Wan released Saw, a film that used elements of the 1980s slasher craze in a unique way and changed the entire direction of horror for years to come. Seven years later, He released Insidious, a haunting film similar to Poltergeist. Insidious was a visually muted film with a high creep factor and very positive reaction from horror fans and critics. This led to a similar change in thoughts about horror, inspiring such films as 2012's The Woman in Black and 2013's The Conjuring, also directed by James Wan. The Conjuring had a very similar style to Insidious despite having a different writer and production studio, and many viewers saw it as a spiritual successor to Insidious. Fans looked forward to seeing Insidious Chapter 2 several months later, their expectations ramped up by the success of the first film and The Conjuring.
Perhaps it would have been better if The Conjuring had held off – not for its own sake, but for the sake of Chapter 2. In fact, it would probably be better if the audience had not seen the original. Insidious Chapter 2 is not a terrible movie, not by any means, but as a follow-up to Insidious it falls terribly flat. Then again, anybody who watches Insidious Chapter 2 without watching Insidious is likely to have little clue who any of the characters are, or why Josh doesn't remember his past. So let's take a look: is Insidious Chapter 2 better without any knowledge of the original?
Let's start with the visual style. To an even greater extent than The Conjuring, Insidious had a very muted color scheme. In fact, there were two distinct colors that were not desaturated: blue, which represented Josh's son Dalton, and red, which represented the evil spirits that were haunting him. Here, the entire film is in full color with full saturation. On top of this, red is in virtually every scene. Knowing Insidious, I found this incredibly distracting. This might be because there are a pair of spirits that are essentially haunting every scene, but still, there is such a thing as too much of an iconic color. We get it, Bruce Willis is a ghost; we saw that at the end of the first film and new viewers saw it at the beginning of this one. At times, there is so much red lighting that I half expected Freddy Krueger to pop out from around the corner with a one-liner.
Which brings us to the script itself. The Bride in Black (which appeared in the original film but was apparently not the Darth Maul spirit) was actually this film's version of Angela from Sleepaway Camp, who eventually reaches the point where he is rampaging through the house with a bat and the audience expects him to break through a door and yell “here's Johnny!” In other words, the story is entirely unnecessary and reinforces that in every way. There is not enough substance here to fill a film, and it feels as though Leigh Whannell was desperate to have enough material to fill the film, which led to several scenes that made absolutely no sense and had absolutely no payoff. Would this film have been hurt in any way if Josh hadn't spontaneously developed Donnie Darko-like time travel capabilities? The characters are paler versions of their original selves, with little actual character – even the spirit that possesses Josh's body seems rather lost at times. Ultimately, the connections between this film and the previous are rather unnecessary. I mentioned earlier that the original film explains why Josh has no memory of his past, but even knowing that the memories were hypnotized out of him does not explain why they had to time travel in order to access those memories. Wouldn't another session of hypnosis been equally effective, and made a lot more sense?
How about the scares? There are definitely some scares in the film, which is the main reason why I think this might be a good film if it could get some distance from the rest of James Wan's films. The first appearance of Mother Mortis – or rather, the first group of scenes leading up to her actual appearance – carry some genuine suspense and fright. Several of the other scenes featuring her without her son are effective as well. Unfortunately, these scenes aren't enough to hold a candle to what we saw in the first film, and there is just not enough of it amidst some of the confused writing in which the script stumbles about, uncertain of whether or not the audience is fully aware that there is an enemy in their midst. Somehow, all of the tension and possibility for scares was cut out of the possession plotline, which is extremely unfortunate when you consider that plot is entirely the reason why this film got made.
In the end, there are things to recommend Insidious Chapter 2 for, but it's hard to find an audience to recommend them to. I wouldn't watch this after the first, nor would I watch the first after this, but if for some reason you never plan to watch the first, you might enjoy this as its own movie. Still, it's very hard to recommend this with it standing next to The Conjuring in theatres and with Insidious so fresh in the public's memory. If anything, Chapter 2 feels like a sequel produced in the late '90s for a film from the '70s, which is disappointing when you consider that the writer, director and stars returned (even if Ty Simpkins barely appeared due to aging two years). The bottom line is watch this film when it comes out on Netflix, and buy a ticket to The Conjuring.