Insidious is a superior modern horror film because it gets the basics right and adds its own satisfying twist. I wish more modern horror films could follow this simple rule. For a good proportion of the film it's very content to just slowly build tension and atmosphere, creating a haunted environment that's intriguing and unsettling. Where it goes in the final portion is where the film undoubtedly loses some people, but it's a fascinating direction that allows for more creativity and to amp things up, which is something needed in horror. Take The Conjuring, director James Wan's other recent ghost story; a decent film drenched in atmosphere, but it ends with a generic conclusion that makes you wish for more. Insidious by comparison feels like it's running with scissors, particularly as everything escalates.
But even more impactful is an understanding of technique. Surely the three best ways to create fear are sound design, editing and placing of the camera. The scares are well assembled in Insidious but the way the camera moves before this takes place is most curious. There are times it moves forwards but backs off a bit before going into a room where a noise was heard, hesitant in a way that the viewer will subconsciously pick up on. Or the way it just generally moves around, or observes, or approaches an ominous looking door or gets lost in the fog. It's carefully considered for the environment.
The music is a joy. It hearkens back to the old days of strings in horror - Bernard Herrmann's classic shower scene motif in Psycho comes to mind. It's the atonal pulling and scraping and screeching that rips right into the viewer. At times it seems almost excessively baroque, such as when the name fills the screen in a classic steely red font with a stark background, yet the fact that it's always on the edge of pushing too far heightens the unease and messes with one of the viewers two key film-watching senses. Sinister, with it's throbbing noise based score, was the last horror to hugely impress me on this front, but both Insidious films do something truly fantastic in this area.
It's important to not forget that all of the above mentioned aspects are only enhanced by the characterisation. Insidious splits the core duo into the believer (Rose Byrne's Renai) and the skeptic (Patrick Wilson's Josh). Nothing original there, but they feel convincing and don't do the stupid things most people seem resigned to do in horror films. Josh's trait of avoiding confronting things feels very real for example. The benefit of having decent actors in these roles. We're also presented with the expert (Lin Shaye's Elise) and her two comedy sidekick's (writer Leigh Wannell's Specs and Angus Sampson's Tucker). By not being portrayed as a "kook" who communicates with the dead, Elise seems relatively normal and trustworthy, whilst Specs and Tucker offer brief seconds of respite that don't disrupt the tension so much as give you more characters to care about. The role of the children is well judged, with Dalton (Ty Simpkins) showing a credible insouciance until things really start to turn weird.
Chapter 2 picks things up right where the first film ends and aims to follow through with all of the above. It's great to have a story that follows on rather than awkwardly shoehorning in some randomness to make a sequel somehow work - after all the first film ends with an obvious sequel route. There's a lot of potential within this story but it feels like it's somehow squandered. The building of sustained tension is greatly diminished by the need to jump the story around all over the place. So we have flashbacks, new character Carl (Steve Coulter) who takes Specs and Tucker on a (relevant) side plot, and of course the main plot. This breaks the singular focus that works so well in the best horror films, so that when there are creepy scenes in the house you have to readjust after having come in from a different side of the story.
Further distraction comes from a need to try and explain everything rather than letting things lie so your imagination can do its worst. Most critical is towards the end where a lot of what happens in the first film is run through from a different perspective which really ruins the magic and mystery of it all. I suspect knowing this may really hurt future viewings and the level of creepiness. I get that Whannell thought he had a great idea that can interlink everything but it's really not needed in a film like this, unlike Saw for example (which he wrote and starred in) where doing so leads to a beautiful sting in the tail. After all, isn't the beauty of these haunted house and ghost stories the unknowingness of it all, and if it has to be explained it better be something pretty hideous? The same applies to the unnecessary flashbacks to Josh's youth which only serve the interlinking - but on the plus side these scenes do feature Jocelin Donahue, the lead in the superb The House of the Devil [gushing review here], a film the first Insidious very positively reminds me of.
Issues with how the story is approached aside, Chapter 2 adheres to a lot of the tenets that worked first time round. The superb music creates a continual sense of unease whilst there's more of the same interesting camerawork. The character of Carl is an interesting addition despite only serving "the expert" role, and Wilson gets to play Josh in a different way this time, which is good for variety but is really just symptomatic of the story going down a far too generic route. And again we're back to the story, which is an issue when the bar has been set high and a mix and match of standard horror clichés just don't do it justice.
Chapter 2 does a lot right and is an enjoyable horror, but the pull away from single mindedness ensures it never matches the quality or scariness of Insidious, where atmosphere and a strong focus rule supreme. But then this is a horror sequel so the law of diminishing returns are most definitely in play. Hopefully Wan changes his mind about no longer directing horror and comes back for the third chapter - he has proven he is one of the most capable genre directors around and there is some potential fun to be had with a third film based on where they've ended things.