Eh. Horror sequels. Can’t live with ‘em. Can’t live without—well, no you actually can live pretty happily without them. If kidflick sequels are bad, horror movie sequels are often much, much worse: Not only are they often just phoned in, and the people involved were not involved with the original at all, sometimes sequels are made by people who haven’t even seen the original (I’m looking at you Friday The 13th series).
We won’t even talk about the inevitable descent into camp.
But there are exceptions. The Saw series for example, while it varied wildly in quality, the variation came largely from the limits of the—well, of trying to beat a dead horse, really. In their eagerness to set up a franchise with Jigsaw, the movies used increasingly preposterous (and occasionally confusing) devices (both literarily and physically speaking).
So, it’s fitting that it should be James Wan, at the helm of the sequel to his earlier mini-masterpiece, Insidious, making a sequel that’s just as good as the original. Obviously, opinions will vary, but as of this writing the two movies share a 6.8 rating on IMDB and a 61% popular rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (Critics liked the first one and not the sequel, but I’m not sure film critics are allowed to like horror sequels.)
Also, some object to the fact that this movie dispenses completely with the whole haunted-or-not? dilemma of the original as well as the can-we-just-move-out? plot device. I, personally was relieved by this. We saw that dance in the first film and, frankly, it would have been not just tiresome but incredible to believe that a family just having undergone the events of the first film wouldn’t pretty much jump to the conclusion that they were experiencing the same thing if a light bulb suddenly burst, much less the spooky goings on that do occur.
As a result, this is less a spooky film and more a scary film, though there are some eerie parts. Virtually the entire cast is back, although Lin Shaye is a corpse, having died at the end of the first film.
It’s instructive to view this alongside Wan’s other 2013 film, The Conjuring. That film, which is probably better, hews pretty closely to the “formula” that Wan (and co-writer Leigh Whannel who also co-wrote Saw and other films with Wan) has polished:
1. Characters you care about. (This is not a given. A philosophy of horror film making has the audience wanting to see the putative protagonists die.)
2. Atmosphere. They can do a slow build, as in the first Insidious, but it’s not mandatory. This time they hit the atmosphere hard and fast.
3. An element of mystery. There’s just enough of “what’s going on?” to engage you, and they don’t cop out by not explaining. Admittedly, the exposition can be the weakest part, though this movie suffers less than the original in that regard.
4. Suspense. This is the one that most horror movies leave out. They sort of give a half-hearted try, but they’re so caught up in imitating familiar tropes, they end up robbing their movies of any suspense.
The Boy, in particular, was pleasantly surprised, and we debated whether or not this was the better of the two films without coming to any conclusions.
Keep in mind, of course, that this is an “old, dark house” flick at its heart. It’s basically rattling chains and floating furniture, with Patrick Wilson doing a pretty damn good Jack Torrance at one point. If that ain’t your cuppa, this ain’t your cuppa.
Bonus points for concluding the story definitively while still setting up the possibility of a franchise.