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.