BY VAN ROBERTS
Ever since Oren Peli parlayed “Paranormal Activity” into a mega-successful franchise, horror movies shunning all traces of blood, gore, and mutilation have the rage. The “Paranormal Activity” franchise, for example, is working on its fifth installment. Peli’s spooky success has rubbed off on writer & director James Wan. Wan made a name of himself with the original “Saw,” the guts-and-gore, torture-yourself franchise about a serial killer who inspires reprobates as awful as he is to end their lives in a blaze of pain. After the millions of dollars that “Saw” yielded, Wan left the remaining five “Saw” sequels in the hands of others. He made “Death Silence” and “Death Sentence.” Neither exerted the impact of “Saw,” and the young Malaysian director languished until producer Oren Peli came along with “Insidious.” Wan and his long-time “Saw” collaborator Leigh Whannell teamed up again, and “Insidious” used demoniac possession to scare up a mite more than $54 million on a $1.5 million budget. After a week in general release, “Insidious Chapter 2” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) has sold enough tickets to surpass the original’s life-time haul. Between the two “Insidious” movies, Wan created another hair-raising hit with “The Conjuring.”
This white-knuckled ghost story has earned approximately $271 million worldwide. “The Conjuring” and the two “Insidious” epics exemplify a new breed of horror movie. They shun the blood, gore, and mutilation of hell-raisers such as the blood-sodden “Evil Dead” remake. Indeed, Wan’s “Insidious” outings aren’t designed to make you gag as hideous events unfold before your eyes. Like Peli, Wan has given spooky sagas a new lease on life. Scares are served up in the form of surprises. Goose bumps cover your forearms. Something mysterious lunges at you when you are least prepared for it. A creepy character appears out of nowhere and your blood runs cold because you were caught off guard. You may see some vile characters lurking in the background, but these ghouls won’t make you empty your stomach into your lap. Virtually all the frightening stuff in the “Insidious” franchise encourages you to use your imagination. You wind up scaring yourself because of what you didn’t see rather than being frightened by prosthetic effects.
If you haven’t seen “Insidious,” you’re going to be lost in “Insidious: Chapter Two.” Director James Wan’s superior sequel resumes where his original ended and provides more thrills and chills. Predictably, the unlucky Lambert family encounters more of the unknown that lies on the other side described simply as ‘the Further.’ This ‘Further’ is a Purgatory of sorts where the tortured souls of the dead wander without a hope. Basically, demons want to appropriate your physical body in the “Insidious” movies. They struggle to oust you from your flesh so they can occupy your skin. Some people are gifted with the ability to project themselves into an astral dimension while their bodies rest in an apparent coma. Imagine what might occur if you went to sleep and left the door to your house or apartment standing wide open? Young Dalton Lambert (Ty Simpkins) has been able to project himself onto an astral plane. During one outing in the other world, Dalton got lost while his body lay in a coma for all practical purposes. Renai (Rose Byrne of “Bridesmaids”) and Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson of “Watchmen”) are at a loss to explain their son’s predicament. Initially, they believed that their house was haunted so they moved but Dalton’s condition didn’t improve. Josh’s mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey of “Beaches”) ushers in an old friend, Elise Reiner (Lin Shaye of “Snakes on a Plane”), who specializes in paranormal investigation. Two assistants, Specs (Leigh Whannell of “Saw”) and Tucker (Angus Sampson of “Razor Eaters”), who sketch, record, and photograph things for Elise, accompany her to the Lambert residence. Elise relieves everybody when she informs them that Dalton is not comatose. We learn that Josh wandered on the astral plane, too, during his youth. Elise puts Josh into a trance and he confronts demons in the Further that resemble a cross-between demonic clowns and “Star Wars” villains. Eventually, Josh succeeds in bringing his son back to life. Unfortunately, while Josh has been acting like a responsible parent, a demon has entered his body and controls him. Just as “Insidious” appears to end happily ever after, Josh strangles Elise while Renai, Lorraine, and Dalton sit in the next room without a clue about what is happening. As “Insidious: Chapter Two” opens, the Lamberts have moved in with Lorraine, and the police have launched an investigation into Elise’s murder. The sequel takes us into Josh’s past when he met Elise for the first time as a youth haunted by the apparition of a woman in a veil. Lorraine discovered this phenomenon after she snapped several pictures of her son and noticed a mysterious lady in the background. The history of that elusive dame that has tormented Josh constitutes the bulk of scenarist Leigh Whannell’s screenplay.
Essentially, like its predecessor, “Insidious: Chapter Two” is spooky version of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” sagas with demons that are far less aggressive than Freddie Kruger with his razor-sharp claws. Nevertheless, Wan and company rely less in depicting events in a way that sickened audiences in the “Nightmare” franchise. People sitting and standing in rows with white sheets draped over them will make your goose bumps rise. Just as the original had things that lunged out at you, “Insidious: Chapter Two” never misses a chance to startle you with its revelations. Unlike many horror movies, the “Insidious” franchise doesn’t deploy false alarms as a part of their scare strategy. Some horror movies go to outlandish lengths to set up a scary situation and then disappoint when they didn’t pay off with a scream what they set up with dread. The woman that haunted Josh in “Insidious” comes after him with everything that she can muster in “Insidious: Chapter Two.” Predictably, the ending serves as a fore runner to Chapter Three.