James Wan certainly knows his way round a haunted house. Behind the camera, he’s the de facto ghost in the closet: pulling the strings of our discomfort, trespassing from within, turning the reassuring, nurturing properties of what we identify with as home into a baleful, alienating spectacle. He showed this kind of familiarity with the genre in this year’s The Conjuring, a thrilling Amityville Horror-like yarn that made the oldest tricks in the book somehow bold and refreshing. Sadly, his latest film, Insidious: Chapter 2, is a sharp reminder of the fine line horror directors tread between emphatic scares and dismal failure.
The returning Patrick Wilson, who was perfectly cast somewhere between saviour and lunatic in The Conjuring, is altogether less convincing here as the haunted John Lambert, who seeks refuge with his wife (Rose Byrne) after the traumatic events of the original Insidious (2010). Their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) remains a target for malevolent evil spirits, and comic relieving ghost-busters Specs and Tucker (co-writer Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson) are called in again to stop the demons gaining access to the world. It is at this point, when the suburban horror gives way to an elaborate and ludicrous exploration of an astral plane known as ‘The Further’, that the scares are removed from their context and the guffaws take over.
Laughter is often a sign that a horror movie is doing something right, but it is not a get out of jail free card. James Wan is not Sam Raimi, and consequently Insidious: Chapter 2 was never intended as something in the mould of The Evil Dead cycle or the more recent Drag Me to Hell. The laughter here is risible, not a direct consequence of the film but in spite of it. The high moral seriousness of the central conceit in both Insidious films – that of a haunted child – undoubtedly deserves more delicate touches and more sobering scares.
That’s not to say that the aforementioned approach is objectionable in any more serious a way than a Jack-in-the-box or a carnival ghost-train ride. Wan, who wrote and directed Saw, though not yet a master of subtlety, has a command, and a love, of his genre that is commendable. What Insidious: Chapter 2 tells us, as did its original preceding outing, is that Wan – for the moment at least – should stick to what he knows best until he finds a new box of tricks with which to navigate the terrain of the unknown.