Less Tiptoeing, More Traveling: "Insidious: Chapter 2" offers new/old, creepy/hokey goodies

Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) 
105 min., rated PG-13.

2011's indelible, immersively creepy "Insidious" was like recently prolific filmmaker James Wan's anti-"Saw" (which put both he and co-writer Leigh Whannell on horror fans' radars). In exchange for gory crimson, the film favored old-world tension and ominous atmosphere, delivering jack-in-the-box scares and visual/aural humdingers in spades and adding up to what might be one of the most legitimately goosebump-inducing mainstream horror films in quite some time. Now, the tides have turned a bit with "Insidious: Chapter 2," which is solidly crafted for what it does but nowhere near the jittery heights of its predecessor or "The Conjuring," Wan's more classically scary frightfest from a couple months ago. It's a disappointment when no pieces of your armrest will be in between your fingernails after this one.

More of a direct continuation than a whole new story, "Insidious: Chapter 2" is exactly what it says on the tin, so a word of advice to those wandering into this without a pre-screening of "Insidious": don't. With that said, the story actually begins with a 1986-set opener wherein young medium Elise (Lindsay Seim with Lin Shaye's dubbed voice, "A League of Their Own"-style) first meets Lorraine Lambert (Jocelin Donahue, "The House of the Devil") to help her son Josh (Garrett Ryan), who's haunted by an old woman. Then it's back to where we put our bookmark. Before the cut-to-black, to-be-continued coda of the first film, Josh (Patrick Wilson) and wife Renai (Rose Byrne) reunited with their son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), after he traveled out of his physical body and was trapped in the spirit realm of "The Further." While Josh did rescue their son, something in a black wedding dress followed him back, strangling medium Elise (Lin Shaye). Now, Josh is still experiencing an out-of-body experience and might have had something to do with Elise's murder. He tells Renai that "nothing is going to hurt us again," but she's not exactly sold on her husband's assuredness after they, along with their other son and baby daughter, go to stay with grandma, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey). Renai starts hearing and seeing things again, as does Lorraine, and Dalton thinks something is definitely wrong with Daddy. Things are going to get worse before they get better.

For their second chapter, director Wan and co-writer Whannell definitely write themselves out of a corner in some cleverly nifty ways. Whereas "Insidious" combined astral projection with haunted-house tropes, "Insidious: Chapter 2" furthers the "Further" mythology with the kind of loopy metaphysical logic that might even make Freddy Krueger scratch his noggin, whilst turning the timeline of the first film into a knot and filling in some gaps. Though sprinkled with jump scares that are accompanied by instrumental stingers working overtime, the film really does feel like a later chapter, taking a while to pounce and actually gaining more stamina as it goes along. That doesn't mean it's bereft of spooky-fun goodiesa noisy light-up baby walker and a non-player piano both won't shut up, a "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"-singing woman in a white dress pops up around the house, and someone who's not his brother just wants to talk to Dalton with two cans and a stringbut it's more of a one-trick pony than before. The tone of this film is even more theatrical and borderline-campy than the first, especially when exploring the twisted backstory of its spectral threats. The shrieky caterwauling of the score might be even more akin to being snuck up on by a full-size orchestra. The narrative is also meandering and takes a while to settle into a steady rhythm. 

Without cashing it in, even on the heels of "The Conjuring," Wan is still very disciplined behind the camera. He knows how to play his audience like a fiddle, using every inch of his frame and throwing boogeymen and women out at us to give us a surprising fright. There's one surprising, seat-jumping "Mommie Dearest" moment, and a memory that Lorraine relives when she worked at the hospital "Our Lady of the Angels" and dealt with an elderly ICU patient leaves a more haunting impression than any cheap gimmick. Later moments in the visionary, fog-drenched world of "The Further" have some of that enveloping anticipation and fear that's mostly missing in the first half. The horror genre isn't always blessed with the most competent and grounded actors, but the "Insidious" films have been lucky, as no one shows a lack of commitment. Byrne and Hershey handle the familial support-system stuff and horror reactions with aplomb, while Wilson gets to ham it up a bit when he goes into Jack Torrance mode with wrinkles. Someway, somehow, Shaye returns as Elise and, though it won't be spoiled how, she's always a welcome presence. Her friend and former assistant, Carl (Steve Coulter), who uses lettered dice to contact spirits, is an okay addition, and those Mormon-dressed paranormal experts, Specs and Tucker (Angus Sampson, Whannell), are back to bring a sizably quirky, tongue-in-cheek comic relief that's ample without killing the mood. 

If we have to compare one to the other, the specters here are never as mind-burningly nightmarish as the fiendish red-and-black demon of the first, and, regrettably, the inspired use of Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" is never heard once. Too many of this one's scares involve some ghostly specter standing behind (or in front of) one of the living, too. But while the filmmakers' mistake of playing up the astral-projection angle so much gives way to this one jumping the proverbial shark, "Insidious: Chapter 2" isn't a total loss if all you want is a jolting, increasingly hokey cinematic funhouse that meets its goal to complete the full story. It won't be the most startling pre-Halloween scream this year, but horror fans and completists might dig it as an entertaining Friday night in a dark room on a giant screen.

Grade: B -