Netflix Picks: Insidious: Chapter 2

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Someone once told me that the great burden of horror movie fans is the volume of mediocre movies they must sift through to find what's good. The first Insidious film (not streaming on Amazon, Hulu or Netflix right now) was a pleasant surprise, smarter than the previews made it look. And director/producer James Wan's 2013 sequel, Insidious: Chapter 2, is another surprise: It's a solid execution of an apparently daft plot.

After the events of the first film, here left mostly unspoiled, Josh Lambert, his wife, Renai, and their son, Dalton, (Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne and Ty Simpkins, respectively) are alive and well. But something is still wrong at the Lamberts' house — the piano is playing itself, and the baby is screaming in the middle of the night.

Josh wants to ignore it and hope it will go away, but his mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), wants answers. She teams up with Tucker and Specs (Angus Sampson and producer Leigh Whannell), the bumbling ghost hunters, plus Carl (Steve Coulter), an old friend of medium Elise Rainer (Lin Shaye) from the first film and a capable medium himself. As tensions mount in the Lambert house, the Lorraine-led team tracks down the history of Parker Crane (Tom Fitzpatrick), the ghost responsible for the peril facing Josh, Renai and Dalton.

If that low-spoiler summary makes Chapter 2 sound like the unholy offspring of The Shining and Scooby Doo, that's not far off the mark. But Wan can balance two converging plots more deftly than many of his contemporaries. The ghost hunt blends narrative and humor without totally devolving into a game of “spook the comic relief.”

That said, Specs and Tucker lose most of their usefulness from the first movie, which is unfortunate. It was nice to have funny characters who can advance the plot.

One of the things that made the original work was the way it ramped up its paranormal elements as the tension built, going from a simple haunting to astral projection and possession. Chapter 2 does something similar, playing with time and causality while introducing Crane, a body-hopping, cross-dressing serial killer with mommy issues — and yes, it works better on film than on paper. But the tone falters most visibly right at the start, with how Wan handles Josh (spoiler alert) being possessed by Crane. Instead of a razor-tight game of predator and prey between Crane and the Lamberts, we get a cannonade of paranormal elements that perforate the most promising story arc in the movie.

So what does work? The sound design is creepy, especially when events move into the more overtly paranormal. Most of what happens in the Further (the film's afterlife realm) feels like a nightmare you can’t wake up from. Whenever the murderer-ghost’s victims are onscreen, they get covered in white cloths like they’re old furniture — trying to guess which one is going to move is like playing “spot Michael Myers” in the original Halloween. And though nobody’s winning an award here, the acting ranges from acceptable to solid.

Insidious: Chapter 2’s warning signs shine like dumpster fires in the distance. It’s the sequel to a Hollywood horror flick. It’s PG-13. It’s safe. The plot summary verges on nonsense. But for all of the Grade A underground horror movies I’ve seen, it has been years since a horror movie kept me from falling asleep later that night, even for a few hours.

Like it in spite of your loftier sensibilities. Order a pizza. Tuck in.

Congratulations, you’re one movie closer to justifying that $8.99 a month.

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