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updated: 9/12/2013 9:42 AM

'Insidious' sequel a messy mix of comedy, cleverness and cheap theatrics

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  • The malevolent ghost of a scary mother (Danielle Bisutti) doesn't like living people messing with her plans of mass murder in the sequel "Insidious Chapter 2."

      The malevolent ghost of a scary mother (Danielle Bisutti) doesn't like living people messing with her plans of mass murder in the sequel "Insidious Chapter 2."

  • Video: "Insidious Chapter 2" trailer

 
 

The first half of James Wan's "Insidious Chapter 2" comes off like a cheap horror knockoff that only works if the characters possess the smarts of a teenager in his underwear going to check strange noises outside his tent during the dead of night.

Take the scene where Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) goes to her husband, Josh (Patrick Wilson), to tell him that their piano played by itself and she found their baby out of his crib on the floor.

"Hasn't the baby done that before?" Josh asks. Oh, maybe he has, Renai admits. OK, maybe that makes sense.

But wait! Their piano played by itself. Did she forget that?

Apparently so, because she stays in the house as if nothing else will happen. Josh even says, "Nothing is going to bother us anymore!"

Normal moms would already be on the way to a hotel, especially after ghosts kidnapped her child and killed a family friend in 2010's "Insidious."

At this point in "Chapter 2," discriminating horror fans might be tempted to join the moms' mass exit from this story. It appears to be a cheap recycling of elements from "Psycho," "Poltergeist," "The Shining" and even the overused found-footage treatment from "The Blair Witch Project."

Give it a few minutes, about 45 of them.

When the second half of "Chapter 2" kicks in, the movie suddenly starts making sense.

It even reveals itself to be clever in how events overlap and explain things that happened earlier in the story, even back to 1986 when little Josh, then a preteen, becomes the target of nefarious supernatural elements in his home.

"Chapter 2," written by original screenwriter and Wan collaborator Leigh Whannel, rejects the idea that effective horror movies are rooted in some semblance of reality,

This sequel, like its predecessor, is steeped in nightmarish unreality where every house looks haunted, every basement resembles a tomb, every hallway seems endlessly spooky and nobody can afford decent lighting anywhere.

Josh, Renai and their kids have moved in with grandma (Barbara Hershey) to allow the cops to investigate their home where family friend and clairvoyant Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) was strangled at the end of Chapter 1.

We suspect something nefarious followed Josh when he returned from the land of the dead -- mostly just a large and dark room -- after rescuing his son from a supernatural kidnapper.

We were right.

Josh starts talking to someone not there. His teeth begin to fall out. Then he suffers hissy fits in the shower and shouts how he wants somebody "out of my head!"

Without divulging too much, an evil entity gradually takes over the evil Josh while the good Josh, a literal shadow of his former self, remains stuck in the nether world.

This movie takes on a comic spin when Renai recruits help from local ghostbuster buddies Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) plus clairvoyant Carl (Steve Coulter), who helped young Josh back in 1986.

Specs and Tucker bumble their way through danger, supplying physically comical laughs in an otherwise dour downer of a thriller too reliant on Joseph Bishara's nerve-jangling string score and Wan's artless visual jolts to ratchet up the scares.

Danielle Bisutti deserves credit for pushing her ghostly mommy -- credited as "The Mother of Parker Crane" -- all the way to a supernatural version of Cruella deVil with stiletto eyebrows.

Both Wilson and Byrne turn in far better performances than their terrorized parent characters required. Byrne gives Renai a quiet strength behind a standard put-upon female horror victim. Wilson, fresh from starring in a better supernatural drama "The Conjuring," smoothly transitions from boring regular dad into sociopathic, possessed pop, emanating nuanced malevolence.

The trailers to "Chapter 2" are actually scarier than the feature, mainly because they use Tiny Tim's demented version of "Tip Toe Through the Tulips" originally broadcast on the 1960s TV series "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In."

Now that's creepy.

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