Saw, came out with his ghost story Insidious, I was stunned at how good-to-great it was for the bulk of its running time. And earlier this summer, when The Conjuring bowed, I was outright gobsmacked that this director, of all directors, had just like that become one of the best working American horror filmmakers.
Well, I am relieved to say that we can all start breathing again, because his latest, Insidious: Chapter 2, is fucking awful. It's precisely the movie that Insidious itself should have been, and unaccountably - but happily! - was not: filled with baldly-telegraphed scare scenes, flat characters with no discernible emotions or motivations except for those which exist entirely to prod the plot along, lousy acting, worse dialogue, and boring, atmosphere-free cinematography. It is the exact movie that Wan and frequent collaborator/fellow Saw creator Leigh Whannell, writing the screenplay and playing the movie's single most annoying character (a function he also served in Insidious), ought to have made as their first ghost story on the heels of the truly awful killer ventriloquist dummy picture Dead Silence from 2007, and it's really only the existence of Dead Silence that makes Chapter 2 appear at all acceptable; hard as it is to believe from these results, it could be worse.
The film takes off right where Insidious left off, and proceeds forward with only a meager nod in the direction of catching up newbies: Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) has just been possessed by the spirit of a psychotic old woman who has been haunting him since he was a little boy (their first meeting dramatised in a prologue that is the single bright patch in the whole feature), and was able to take over his body while he was in "The Further", the gloomy afterworld were dead spirits dwell and psychically-sensitive humans can visit during out-of-body experiences. Josh was in the Further to save his son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) from an entirely different evil spirit - a demon that looked like somebody's terrible attempt at a homemade Darth Maul costume, who doesn't make so much as a cameo in this picture - and Dalton is fine now, except for the fact that he and his mother Renai (Rose Byrne) can't quite put their finger on what's the matter with Daddy. Which is, all things considered, not something that should be very difficult for these people to imagine, and the fact that it takes the characters something like two-thirds of the movie to start wondering about possibilities that should have been on their minds from, literally, the first beat of the plot, is the most frustrating element of Chapter 2, though it's hard to say that it's the worst.
The attempt to figure out why terrifying things are still happening to the Lamberts, living with Josh's mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) now, involves the ghost of medium Elise Rainer (Lin Shaye), the living version of her old colleague Carl (Steve Coulter, the only signficant member of the cast who wasn't in the first movie), and the bumbling paranormal investigators Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), who provide quite a lot more in the way of comedy this time around, virtually none of which is funny; indeed, in a film that is shockingly full of intentional jokes (compared to, I think, zero jokes in The Conjuring), the only one that landed for me at all was a reaction shot where a half-asleep Dalton bolts awake with a perfectly-formed "oh, shit" expression. Specs and Tucker, meanwhile, flail around like a pair of illiterate clowns, deflating the minute scraps of tension that the film is ever able to generate, in between marathon-length bouts of exploring with fanboyish intensity the mechanics of how the Further works.
The big problem with Chapter 2 is its inheritance: Insidious started out really well, but as it started to reveal its convoluted mythological system, the film plummeted from being a perfectly effective, spooky exercise in yelling "boo!" to losing itself up its own asshole. By the time Chapter 2 comes along, the bed has already been shat in, and the only options would be to wholly discard a huge chunk of the first movie's plot (at which point, it could just have a different title, different character names, and be unrelated, and called The Conjuring), or it could double-down and work on making the material in the third act of Insidious as functional as possible. Obviously, Whannell and Wan went the second direction, as they'd basically have to, and to be fair, Chapter 2 does its best to expand the idea of the Further in the most coherent, systematic way possible. That still doesn't make it a worthwhile place to set a movie, and the more involved in describing this ghostly place the movie gets, the less energy it has left over to set up good scare scenes, which is after all the reason we tend to want to see movies like this; sort of like how The Matrix Reloaded decided that reel-long scenes discussing the architecture of virtual spaces mattered more than slow-motion fight scenes with guns.
Meanwhile, most of the heavy-lifting for the scares is done by Wan's reliable old standby, the Terrifying Old Lady, making this the fourth movie in which the director has relied on the natural human fear of women with wrinkled faces, and it's also the one where these weird trend finally suggests that one of the two filmmakers has some deep-seated psychological problem that they've been working out all this time, and while I will do Insidious: Chapter 2 the dubious honor of not spoiling it, suffice it to say that film steals from Psycho in way that makes absolutely no fucking sense for a haunting movie. It's not the only horror movie Wan copies: there are particularly obvious lifts from The Shining, and even a few from The Conjuring itself, the clearest sign of many that Wan didn't have the energy to make two movies in basically the same genre so close together, and Chapter 2 is the one that found total creative rot setting in. Still, the Psycho riffs are particularly off-putting and out-of-place, turning a simple possession movie into a really dumb-ass mystery with gender representation problems.
Along with its misplaced narrative priorities, its bad comedy, and its lack of scares, Chapter 2 is just shoddy filmmaking: Joseph Bishara's score is nowhere near as insinuating as it was in the previous movie, and the framing isn't as full of suggestive empty space. It's more pedestrian in every way, and lacks any kind of creepy mood that could have at least made it a diversion of some sort. Worst of all, though least related to technique, the writing is unbelievably awful, culminating in a line that I would happily call the worst dialogue of 2013 thus far, if only I could read my damn notes and remember what the line was - it is given to Wilson to say as he threatens Byrne. Most of the worst dialogue, in fact, is given to this most unlucky actor, who has to bear a truly heroic weight of syntactically warped exposition and speeches that are meant to sound cryptic, but mostly have such obvious subtext that you can only assume that the filmmakers had contempt for the film and for its audience, assuming that we cannot possibly understand how to decipher moments such as Renai's confusion why the song she wrote for her husband is playing from nowhere, as though everything about the scene wasn't screaming neon letters that Josh's disembodied spirit is trying to communicate with her.
About two-thirds of the way through, Insidious went from terrific to bad; Chapter 2 doesn't have such a neat moment of collapsing in on itself, though it surely does start out bad and has become quite insufferable by the end. This is a wonky horror film, obsessed with world-building and retelling a serial killer hunt in the idiom of a ghost story, and the empty-headed characters and frivolous sense of humor make it impossible to take the anemic results seriously, even more impossible than the story already did. This is, I am confident, the most slapped-together, pointless, allover terrible horror film of 2013; and I will remind you that 2013 bore witness to Texas Chainsaw 3D. "Worst of the year" is a very competitive title.