Patrick Wilson is obviously having a ball in Insidious: Chapter 2, playing the kind of role he doesn't get often. The only other time this former St. Petersburg resident played someone so patently evil was 2005's Hard Candy, so that's a lot of nice guy pressure to blow off.
James Wan's sequel enables Wilson to channel Jack Nicholson's portrayal of a supernaturally possessed family man in The Shining. Not imitating but alluding to its iconic status, conveying the same crazy with a different smile. Where Nicholson crashed through a door with an ax, Wilson uses a fire extinguisher. At other times he swings a baseball bat that Shelley Duvall might have wielded. Little things that can mean a lot to horror aficionados.
Chapter 2 begins with a prologue set in 1986, when Wilson's character Josh Lambert was a mere telekinetic lad shadowed by a ghost, worrying his mother who will age into Barbara Hershey. That calls for Lin Shaye's cool medium to investigate, so Wan literally puts her words into a younger actor's mouth. Distracting, but a welcome promise that Shaye won't be just the corpse left behind in chapter 1.
After the loudest dissonant chord I've heard in a while introducing the movie's title, Wan picks up soon after the medium was strangled by Josh, or an evil force that followed him from the Further, if you buy his alibi. If you don't know that the Further is where the tormented dead reside and Josh's son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) was dragged in the first movie, you do now.
Josh rescued Dalton from the Further and returned home and it looks like something evil hitched a ride. Creaking doors slam, closets are biting people, and a piano is playing by itself, none of which is as scary or sonically stinging as the toys strewn around the house by the Lambert kids. Wan gets three good jumps from a blinged-out baby walker alone. It's fun hearing an audience murmur, shriek and laugh at themselves for doing it, which seems to be the Insidious brand's intention.
Wan and co-writer Leigh Whannell devise an interesting reason to re-enter the Further but it isn't as much fun this time around. The first movie's tour was a Halloween amusement park ride, passing gruesome tableaus and turning Tiptoe Through the Tulips into the nightmare earworm it always deserved to be. The encore is darkness, dry ice and something bursting from the shadows now and then, piano bangs announcing their arrival.
Anything bloodier is old hat, anyway. Wan and Whannell already did the torture porn thing with Saw, and tired of it as smart people do. With these movies and the recent hit The Conjuring, Wan in particular is pacing today's movie horror by reverting to the past. There's a touch of Hammer Films in his haunted house atmospheres, and Roger Corman in his groaning comic relief from the dread.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.