Thursday, January 30, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Insidious Chapter 2 (2013)


James Wan’s original Insidious (2011) battered my psyche and troubled my slumber, despite my aesthetic reservations about it.  I’ll re-post my original review of the film later today for further clarification, but in general terms I found Insidious’s old crone terribly frightening -- at least on a subconscious level -- even as I vehemently disliked the film’s step-by-step “homage” to the plot/character details of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982).

Why did Insidious’s old crone frighten me so much?

My reasoning is not entirely rational, but fear isn’t a rational emotion, either.

I can only surmise that I find the premise of this particular boogeyman plausible in some way  In other words, if the unquiet dead do linger in some kind of perpetual, nether half-life (“The Further,”) the very thing they would likely seek from us, from the mortal coil, would indeed be more life. 

In Insidious, the old Crone haunts a man, Josh (Patrick Wilson) throughout the entirety of his youth, patiently waiting for just the right moment to execute her “insidious” plan to take his life and cast his immortal soul to that nether realm; that place that is only half-there, half-realized. 

The Old Crone -- her pasty-white face hidden beneath an obscuring veil -- spoke to my psyche in dreadful whispers of decay, avarice and mortality.  So the notion of something hungry and desperate from the “beyond” attempting to punch its way back into this world found purchase in my personal anxieties, I guess you could fairly state.


Because of this fact, I found Insidious’s plot-line far more convincing (and therefore frightening…) than the narrative in Wan’s The Conjuring (2013) for instance.  I just don’t believe that if a malevolent spirit did exist, it could possibly be interested in cursing a tract of land over the ages.

I mean, why bother with a chunk of land that you can’t even live on?

Regardless, this discussion is mere prologue to a review of Insidious Chapter 2 (2013), a very weak echo of the 2011 original.   To a significant degree, this sequel fails because too much detail is provided regarding the Old Crone, thus neutering her as an opaque figure of fear. 

Beyond that substantial flaw, Insidious Chapter 2 features a pair of hapless paranormal investigators -- Specs and Tucker -- and deploys them as cringe-worthy comic relief.  At first they aren’t such a terrible distraction, but by movie’s end, they achieve the Jar-Jar threshold irritation.

And finally, the sequel’s sting-in-the-tail/tale or climactic bump is the most generic and lame horror movie ending to come down the pike in some time.  It is the most ridiculous place-holder imaginable, suggesting that the horror continues…in some, unseen (and as yet undefined…) but TRULY AWFUL form.  This incongruous ending looks and plays like it was filmed in about half-an-hour, and then mated to the final edit at the last possible second before prints shipped out to theaters.

On the other hand -- give the devil his due -- Insidious Chapter 2 (2013) also features a legitimately clever interlude about two-thirds of the way through, one that tantalizingly suggests “The Further” is connected simultaneously to all time periods.

At the very least, this time-bending aspect of the astral plane livens up a sequel that seems hell-bent on undoing all the fear and horror that Insidious so assiduously generated.



“Into the Further We Go….”
Following his sojourn into “the Further” to rescue his son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), Josh Lambert (Wilson) is unable to return to his own body.  Instead, the monstrous Old Crone takes over his corporeal form, achieving at last her desire for more life.
Josh’s concerned wife, Renai (Rose Byrne) and his mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) soon come to understand that something is terribly wrong with Josh when the spectral visitations don’t cease. 
Now, the family house seems haunted by another spirit, a vengeful “mother” figure.
To free Josh’s body from its malevolent host, Renai and Lorraine -- with the help of parapsychologists Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) -- must learn all they can about the Old Crone, who in life was actually a serial killer, Parker Crane, known in the press as “The Bride in Black.” 
Crane’s pathology -- even in death -- bears some secret relationship to the Mother Ghost terrorizing Renai and her children.
Meanwhile, in the shadowy Further, Josh attempts to find a way home, a way that includes visiting his youthful self, twenty-five years in the past. 
Fortunately, Josh also finds a friend in the astral plane in the person of the recently-murdered Elise (Lin Shaye), the parapsychologist who once saved his life.


“In my line of work, things tend to happen when it gets dark.”
Okay, so I’m on record as stating that the Old Crone in Insidious scares me.
Now I will also go on record as stating that the same character does no such thing in this half-baked sequel.  This formerly-effective boogeyman is neutered because so much of the film involves the hunt to learn more about her. 
Who was she in life?   Why was she so evil?  What happened to her?  How did she die?
I’ve written on this subject before, but here goes. Too much detail or background information is the enemy of a good horror film, and the enemy of fear itself.  The more data you possess about a “monster,” the less that monster retains the capacity to effectively scare you. 
Exhibit A is Michael Myers.  In the original Halloween (1978), audiences had no way to understand his murderous actions.  Was he a developmentally arrested kid playing pranks, unaware of mortality? Was he a manifestation of Laurie Strode’s repressed Id?  Was he “purely and simply” evil, as Dr. Loomis suggested.  Or was he, actually, the Boogeyman?
Halloween was so terrifying because audiences could paint upon that black white mask any motive, or any meaning that seemed valid.  And at different points in the film, different motives seemed equally valid. 
But then, in the sequels, we learned that Laurie was Michael’s sister, and that he was just killing off his surviving family members.  And then, in the remakes, we learned he was an abused child living in a white-trash house-hold.
The more detail that got slathered on, the less mysterious -- and less powerful -- Michael became.  Instead of being opaque and unknowable (and therefore terrifying), he was transformed into a known and understandable quantity.  Insidious Chapter 2 adopts the same unfortunate route with the Old Crone, indulging in a terrible orgy of psychological explanations and flashbacks. 
We learn, for instance, that the Old Crone was a monster and a killer in life.  To me, this revelation absolutely takes away from the character’s most important essence.  To put it bluntly, it doesn’t matter what the Old Crone was in life.  Because in death, she was a hungry, desperate creature who would do anything -- even torture a child -- to get more of the life she desired and felt cheated out of.  Her “previous” life is immaterial to that quest, I would say.  
But the filmmakers believe that by making the Old Crone a serial killer, the “Bride in Black,” she will be more fearsome.  She isn’t.  The opposite is true.
Also, for the majority of the film, the Old Crone is in Josh’s body, “possessing” it.  This means that we see the Old Crone doing normal everyday things in a normal everyday way, including going to work, putting the kids to bed, and so forth.
 So…this being so desperately wanted more life…so she could live a relatively humdrum suburban existence?  As husband and father to a family she doesn’t even like?
That was the endgame?  If so, then why doesn’t the Old Crone try harder to be normal, and to fit in? 
Next, Insidious Chapter 2 makes one “further” mistake. 
It fashions a brand new character even more evil than its existing boogeyman: the Old Crone’s mother.  It turns out that all along the Old Crone was in thrall to her evil, domineering Mom.  Again, Insidious Chapter 2 explores textbook ways to transform a great villain into a wimp. Explain too much, and then kick the character down the chain of command a notch or two, so that she isn’t even calling the shots.
The writing regarding the ghosts and their return to the mortal coil is terrible too.  At one point, the Mother Ghost explains to Old Crone child: “Your dead soul is killing his living skin.”

First of all, why does Mom know this information, since she's a ghost, and has not returned to life in a human form?  And secondly, if she knows this information, why doesn't her child know it?   Where does the knowledge come from (hint: the writer).
As a writer, however, you know your story is in real trouble if you are having ghosts explain to each other -- in forthright dialogue, no less -- the “rules” of bodily possession for the sake of easier audience comprehension. 

This is a line of dialogue that didn’t need to be spoken, because it is obvious from the action on screen what is occurring to the Old Crone in Josh’s body.   But to have two ghosts discuss this matter in such normal conversational terms is a miscalculation of the highest order.
Once the threat of the Old Crone is so diminished, viewers are left with atrocious scenes of Specs and Tucker making a mess of things.  They inject themselves with syringes filled with tranquilizers, and burst heroically into locked rooms…moments after the final battle is over.  Accordingly, Insidious Chapter 2 becomes a movie in which an underwhelming villain battles incompetent heroes, and all sense of fear bleeds out.

But they saved the worst for last.  The film’s ending is so bad it’s an insult.  Specs and Tucker go to visit another (unconnected) family, the ghost of Elise at their side.  Suddenly, Elise sees something horrible…and screams “OH MY GOD!”
We have no idea whatsoever what she sees…only that it will apparently necessitate a sequel in 2015. 
This is just so transparent and uncreative.  The filmmakers can’t be bothered to legitimately consider what might be so frightening and instead throw in something generic that keeps their options open for two years, a span in which they can think of a story, and write a script, I guess.   
So many aspects of Insidious Chapter 2 are really awful.  For instance, if the first film assiduously ripped-off Poltergeist, this one seems intent on ripping off Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986).  Specifically, this sequel finds the imperiled central family living with the grandmother, much as the Freelings did in the second Poltergeist film.
And remember the grisly moment in Poltergeist II when Mr. Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) was possessed by Reverend Kane, and became evil?  That’s the state Josh endures throughout Insidious Chapter 2.
Finally, resolution of the crisis in both films rests on living souls on the other side, encountering a friend from life who has now “passed on.” 
At this rate, I look forward to Insidious Chapter 3, in which the gateway to “the Further” is through wall-sized mirrors in an urban apartment complex…
Still, I must credit Insidious Chapter 2 with some real inspiration.  Late in the film, Josh realizes that he can move not merely from location to location in the Further, but from time period to time period as well.  This realization allows him to interact with his childhood self, and also with himself…in moments right out of the first film.
Indeed, moments in Insidious Chapter 2 suggest that the haunting figure in Insidious is, at times, Josh himself, and not the Old Crone.  That’s a fascinating ret-con, and the makers of the film handle it with intelligence and not a small degree of wit too.  I would have been satisfied if the majority of this movie had involved Josh in the Further, looking for a way back into his life, as a kind of reflection of the Old Crone’s journey in the first film.
But despite this nice and clever touch Insidious Chapter 2 is overall a disappointment.  The film’s “dead soul” is at fault.  It will kill your “living” mind, and shut down any sense of fear you may feel.

2 comments:

  1. I really didn't care for the first film at all. Many people point out the very clear Poltergeist similarities, but I find it interesting that you mention Jar-Jar Binks because the first film also clearly referenced the Phantom Menace by re-appropriating Darth Maul and turning him into, essentially, a mentally undeveloped man-child who's evil seemingly because he loves puppets. Talk about taking a villain down a notch. Any effective atmosphere and originality presented early on in Insidious was quickly ruined by humour that you could never be sure was intentional. I don't think I'll bother with this one. The Conjuring was just silly and Dead Silence was awful.

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  2. Also, no one seems to notice that the ending shamelessly rips off Twin Peaks. The film seemed to me to be a collage of the most disparate movie references possible. Poltergeist, The Phantom Menace and Twin Peaks to name only a few.

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