[13 September 2013]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“In my line of work, things tend to happen when it gets dark.” When last we saw Elise, she was played by Lin Shaye and she was dead. This was at the end of Insidious, following quite of bit of dark screen time, most having to do with the hauntings and abuses of a family more or less headed by Josh (Patrick Wilson). Now, at the start of Insidious Chapter 2, whose apparently inevitable existence was proclaimed at around the same moment as Elise’s grisly death, Elise returns, younger, played by Lindsay Seim.
The young Elise, a courageous and self-confident paranormal activities investigator, presents your with a couple of notions. First, in the resemblance of Seim’s face to the unusual shape of Shaye’s, you are struck by the genius of casting directors Anne McCarthy and Kellie Roy. And second, this bit of backstory confirms what you had already gleaned from the first of the franchise’s installments, that Elise is and remains a far more compelling and entertaining figure than Josh or his family members, including Renai (Rose Byrne) and their three kids, and her consignment to a supporting role again confirms these are films about and comprised of missed opportunities.
Insidious Chapter 2 is not only more of the same as what can now confirm is Chapter 1, but also the worst elements of that sameness. Even as Elise shows again that she is chipper and clever and wise, she is again surrounded by folks who are less of all of that. This reminds you of why they all rely on her so much, and why her death is a terrible thing, but it also means that even when she returns—briefly at first, as her younger self, and then again, later, as her dead-in-another-dimension self—everyone else is sapped of energy and persuasion.
Alas, the new movie cuts quickly from the set-up, in which Josh as a sort of haunted sort of possessed and sort of hypnotized child (Garrett Ryan) is observed with some horror by Elise, his mom Lorraine (whose young version, Jocelin Donahue, can’t quite anticipate the facial travails of her older self, played again by Barbara Hershey), and Elise’s colleague Carl (young incarnation played by Hank Harris, older by Steve Coulter). This past moment is distressing and full of clues for the present, you know. Elise knows too, but being such an intuitively brilliant reader of the paranormal, she’s not going to put all this together until she is of the paranormal, that is, dead. And that’s very too bad.
You understand this singularly cogent point the instant the film cuts from Elise in the suitably creepy past to Renai in the exponentially more mundane present, just after Elise’s death, she is interrogated by a skeptical police detective. As acted by the great Michael Beach, this detective makes clear the new movie’s crucial problem. Specifically, he phrases the key question—“You believe that supernatural forces were at work?”—in such a way that even as he’s nominally wrong in the movie’s universe, he’s also right, in your universe. For the plot is about to pitch into such a raucous, haphazard, piled-on version of these forces that you will not, in fact, believe any of it.
This is where Elise’s absence matters. Without her, you’re left with her minions, Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Simpson), still mildly annoying in their obvious designations as X-Files-y Lone Gunmen stand-ins, who call on Carl to help them re-connect with Elise because she’ll “know” what to do. The dilemma with which they can’t cope is, of course, the continued vexing of Josh and his family by the spirit of someone, and here, Josh’s extended descent into a relationship with an entity who leads Elise to assert, “I’ve never felt such a malignant presence.”
However malignant, this presence has never been especially clever (you’ll recall the red devil’s affect of the previous movie, as well as the floaty old-lady get-up), and here that disappointment is only compounded, as you learn that the presence is an ungainly mish-mash of other malignant movie presences, including a terminally damaged child and an utterly bad and all-at-fault mom. Really?
Without Elise, the movie founders. Both the beleaguered family and their best-intentioned aides are generally several steps behind where you might be. This is a function of hoary plot devices and locations. Yes, a baby in a crib wails with seeming terror over a monitor, then disappears and reappears. Yes, someone must make a trip to an abandoned hospital to find musty old records and retrieve terrible memories (as well as step on a baby doll that so significantly cries out “Mama!” decades after it’s been left on the dusty-cobwebby floor).
Yes again, someone faces down a child’s bedroom full of dollhouses and rocking horses. And yes too, a killer keeps a collection of corpses under veils who appear to be in perfectly preserved fleshy form, though rather comatose or perhaps lady-zombieish in affect. Doors slam shut, baby toys light and play music, chandeliers’ screws unscrew so as to create crashing glass. And the other folks hanging out in the other dimension with Elise tend to be crepe-paper-skinned old-looking and prone to throwing their arms about wildly as their jaws hang open.
As each of these figures and events are commonplace to the point of cliché, they’re not scary so much as they’re allusive, again. But where Chapter 1 managed such referencing with a kind of economy, this installment’s repetitions are bloated instead of knowing, overkilled instead of fashionably or even awkwardly retro. The film’s many excesses serve as apt but also ponderous reminders of how much you miss Elise’s relatively light touch.
At this film’s start, young Elise tells young Josh, “I promise, it won’t hurt.” You know that she knows this can’t be so. But she says it anyway, because she wants to believe it and you want to believe her. You can’t say the same for the movie that surrounds her.