Shadows and the dark, the purest representation of mystery, the unknown manifested. Director James Wan is at his best when playing with those simple elements. His sequel to the mostly creepy and mysterious Insidious, simply titled Insidious: Chapter 2, works best when characters must confront the dark. "In my line of work, things tend to happen when it gets dark," says a young Elise Rainier (Lindsay Seim), a medium in Wan's film. She seems to be channeling her director here.
Wan's horror comes from the psychological baggage of his characters. He is more interested in nightmares than in ghosts. "I've seen things with my own eyes that most people have to go to sleep to conjure up," says Rainier's former assistant Carl (Steve Coulter). It's the unconscious that brews up spirits for Wan, hence his interest in childhood traumas and how they serve to encumber our lives and ultimately make them terrifying. Transporting childhood fears to adulthood is key to Wan’s talent, even if he relies on tropes like musical stings, swish pans, and the anticipation of that frightful thing hiding in the dark. Beyond these devices, the Insidious films work best when they play with the edges of threat and mystery. Wan also deserves extra credit for keeping the frights pure and not resorting to gore, a cruel gimmick that hurts the audience more than it thrills them.
The sequel opens with a scene hinted at in the first film: like his son Dalton (Ty Simpkins), our hero dad Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) was haunted as a child by a malicious spirit. Enter the younger version of Elise, who lost her life in the supernatural struggle to rescue Dalton in the first film. To find the source of the spirit, young Elise hypnotizes young Josh (Garrett Ryan), and he guides her to his bedroom closet. When she opens the door and pushes aside some clothes to reveal nothing but pitch black, she tells the darkness: "Who are you, and what do you want?"
Those are the film's best moments: when it confronts the sublime via literal darkness and mystery. Wan pushes these moments of dread from the unknown in some scenes to the point of comedy, mostly via Elise's surviving assistants, Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson). "You can't be in here," one spirit, a little girl in pigtails, tells them. "If she sees you, she'll make me kill you." The threat of the unknown from forbidden trespass is encapsulated in those lines. The fact that Specs and Tucker take this warning very seriously verges on humorous because it satisfies that urge to tell the characters on screen to "get out" before anyone can yell their advice at the screen.
If there is fault in Insidious: Chapter 2, it comes in the form of further rationalizing this world Wan has created with writer/actor Whannell. The better horror movies plummet further into the darkness of mystery rather than trying to shed light on the motivations of evil spirits. This second chapter offers further explanation of the spirit world journey that closed the first Insidious. Though some may find relief in this, over-explanation also saps the film of its creepy energy, which Wan works so shrewdly to draw up.
Even though he leans on some cinematic horror tropes, as noted earlier, the film's eerie atmosphere has a signature stylistic flourish. He uses low angles to present his looming haunted houses in shadowy darkness, but Wan serves up a subtle new ambiance for the genre with the help of production designer Jennifer Spence. Bright patches of color here and there liven up the sets, especially a reliance on red accents, be it on doors, stained glass or parts of clothing. But the rest of his world features darker shades of color, often painted thick on nice solid, creaky wood. There is also a whimsy to his sets featuring clouds of fog billowing from out of nowhere and slow fade outs and fades to black, lending a surreal atmosphere to the happenings in Insidious: Chapter 2. There is nothing like the irrational to pull the rug out of reality and unnerve the audience, and the film is at its best lingering and peering at that edge.
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Novelist Richard Yates tried for years to bring his 1961 story of marital trouble in ‘50s suburbia to the screen but died before seeing it finally come to fruition in the form of this scorching adaptation by writer Justin Haythe. April (Kate Winslet) and Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) are young marrieds living what appears to be the ideal life in the Connecticut of the 1950s. He has a nice job she is a mother of two with dreams of an acting career. But beneath the surface is a lingering dissatisfaction with their lives; Frank is having an affair with an office worker (Zoe Kazan) and April is terribly unhappy with the way her life is turning out. They engage in ferocious arguments constantly disproving the idea they are the perfect couple. One day April decides the answer to all their problems is to move to Paris and start over. Frank initially agrees but the relationship goes downhill even further from there and things spiral out of control. Revolutionary Road’s brilliant ensemble ignites and delivers on just about every level imaginable. Kate Winslet who seemingly can do no wrong these days is heartbreakingly good as a housewife who foreshadows the feminist movement. Her April is an ambitious confused woman tragically living a couple of beats ahead of her time. Leonardo DiCaprio gives his finest film performance as a man who knows he is not living up to his potential but seems to be in a state of denial trying almost pathetically to keep what’s left of his marriage and family together. It’s the subtext and unspoken words between them that really give power to these tremendously effective performances. After the first 10 minutes you will be so mesmerized by their raw naked acting you will forget you are watching the two young stars who first appeared together in Titanic a decade earlier. Kathy Bates as a cheerful real estate agent with her own family problems is also quite good as is Michael Shannon as her disturbed grown son who seems to know more about the sad state of the Wheelers home life than anyone realizes. He should be a frontrunner for the supporting actor Oscar if there is any justice. Also blending in nicely are Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour as neighbors who are the polar opposite of Frank and April. Sam Mendes who won an Oscar for directing yet another stinging view of suburbia with his Oscar-winning American Beauty does another great job of bringing out the essence of what Yates says about a generation hiding behind a façade of happiness but living on the cusp of great profound social change. Mendes lets long dialogue scenes play out packing them with riveting moments. His filmmaking style should be savored for the insights it provides and the emotional challenges it presents. Mendes also manages to get an extraordinary portrayal of suburban angst from his real-life wife Winslet. Not since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton battled so brazenly in 1966’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf has there been a wounded couple’s marriage so deeply and poignantly exposed on screen.
Merging Serpico with an almost Shakespearean sense of tragedy Pride and Glory details an extremely complicated investigation into the gunning down of four New York City cops after an attempted drug bust goes terribly wrong. With increasingly bad PR and an apparent cop killer still at large the Chief of Manhattan Detectives Francis Tierney Sr. (Jon Voight) assigns his son Detective Ray Tierney (Edward Norton) to lead the probe. The younger Tierney is reluctant since he knows all four cops served under his brother Francis Jr. (Noah Emmerich) and brother-in-law Jimmy Egan (Colin Farrell). Ray’s instincts may be right because as he digs deeper he discovers an awkward and uncomfortable connection between Francis Jimmy and the case. Could his own family have been involved in an inside job and tipped off the drug dealers? Soon Ray finds himself having to choose between the greatest moral dilemma of all: loyalty to the job or loyalty to his family. Although Pride and Glory doesn’t break any new ground and is composed of elements we’ve seen in many previous films dealing with police corruption this film is distinguished by some of the finest work in the storied careers of many of its cast. Norton follows up his summer comic-book movie The Incredible Hulk with a far smaller and more focused character in P&G playing a man caught in a moral bind facing the unthinkable prospect of going after his own family members. Norton wears his ticklish predicament on his face and is enormously effective conveying pure angst. Emmerich (Little Children) delivers a rich portrayal of a tortured soul not only caught up in an intense investigation but dealing with a wife (Jennifer Ehle) dying of cancer. Farrell is better than he has been in some time playing a shady officer who seemingly will stop at nothing to get what he needs. Voight as the proud family patriarch and veteran of the NYPD clearly understands the dilemma of this man who is watching his family torn apart. Co-writer/director Gavin O'Connor has spent a frustrating couple of years trying to bring this story to the screen but his perseverance pays off. Pride and Glory is a well-written cop tale that co-exists as an interesting character study about the power of family ties vs. personal pride. O’Connor manages to put us right in the center of the moral conflict at the heart of his story and with several first-rate actors (even in the lesser roles) crafts a film that seems authentic to its core. Incorporating Declan Quinn’s in-your-face realistic cinematography O’Connor resists going for a more obvious audience-pleasing flashier style achieving a look and feel that seems more grounded in the milieu he’s trying to capture. His script co-written with Joe Carnahan (who wrote and directed the equally gritty Narc) is tight and unsympathetic slowly letting layers of a very intricate and complex story peel away to reveal a core that packs a punch right to the gut.
The story starts just as Sherry (Gyllenhaal) a heroin addict who went to prison for robbing a bank is getting out on parole. Her brother (Brad William Henke) and sister-in-law (Bridget Barkan) have been raising her young daughter Alexis (Ryan Simpkins) and Sherry finds that the girl's loyalties are torn. Sherry walks the fine line between surviving and relapsing as the film follows her struggles to stay clean find a job and most importantly win back her daughter's love. Writer/director Laurie Collyer says she picked Gyllenhaal to play Sherry because "I believe she is the most exciting actress of her generation " and it's hard to disagree. Gyllenhaal is long overdue for awards recognition. Maybe this is the film that will finally let her break through. In what could be a very unlikable role the actress makes us sympathize with Sherry's struggles even when she screws up time after time. Gyllenhaal holds nothing back stripping casually for the camera in several scenes. It’s uncomfortable watching how accustomed Sherry is to using her body to get what she needs. Despite the revelations about her character--she was a teenager stripper her father likely abused her--the film and Gyllenhaal's performance is never melodramatic. She makes Sherry a fundamentally sunny person one we really want to see succeed. As her unlikely sponsor and boyfriend Danny Trejo at first comes off as just another man out to exploit her but reveals himself to be a good man and a real grounding force. Sherry’s brother Bobby is played by Henke with a quiet patience. Barkan remains sympathetic as his wife Sherry's main rival for Alexis's love who doesn't trust Sherry and insists that Alexis stop calling Sherry "Mommy." Simpkins as Alexis is excellent and very natural as she goes from unrestrained joy to seeing her mother again to eventual fear and mistrust. Sherrybaby is a low-key indie filmed matter-of-factly almost like a documentary with no razzle-dazzle. The naturalness of the film extends from the performances to the look and the non-intrusive music score. The story is not a new one and could almost play out like a Lifetime movie of the week except that it so expertly avoids melodrama at every turn. You keep waiting for Sherry to spiral dangerously out of control or to lose her daughter on their one day out but the film is about small moments and small steps. And in the end you’re left wanting more wondering what will happen next to these people. It’s the ultimate testament to a good film.