'Insidious: Chapter 2' ★★ 1/2

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Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips reviews Insidious Chapter 2.

With the crafty "Insidious" (2011) and this year's exceptional "The Conjuring," director James Wan asserted the reliability and profitability of old-school suggestive horror, haunted-house division, easy on the sadism.

Now comes "Insidious: Chapter 2," which picks up mere moments after the first one. That one ended with Patrick Wilson's demon-possessed family man, Josh Lambert, throttling, fatally, the kindly hypnotist played by Lin Shaye. From the hard-working actor's perspective, it's a handy thing being cast in a movie such as "Insidious": You get killed off, but you can come back as a limbo-dweller or a spirit. Life goes on even when it's over.

And that's a working definition of most Hollywood film franchises — they're something to keep going even when there's no creative need to do so. Director Wan's recent comments in interviews about wanting to leave behind the horror genre, at least for a while, make some sense now that I've seen "Insidious 2." The sequel's not bad; it's not slovenly. Some of the jolts are effectively staged and filmed, and Wan is getting better and better at figuring out what to do with the camera, and maneuvering actors within a shot for maximum suspense, while letting his design collaborators do the rest. But Leigh Whannell's script is a bit of a jumble, interweaving flashbacks and present-day action, setting up parallel action involving "real" world hauntings and simultaneous, nightmarish goings-on in the supernatural limbo known as "the further." To which the logical follow-up question is: the further what?

Has Josh gotten rid of his demon self? Hardly: He's like a motel, perpetually vacant so that somebody might check in and stay awhile. Rose Byrne returns as his justifiably paranoid wife, who keeps losing her children and who runs afoul more than once of that new/old horror trope, the insidious baby monitor. Barbara Hershey's also back as Josh's mother, who opens her doors to the haunted Lambert family only to find the spirits come with the package.

Reliable gotchas are brought out for mini-sequels of their own, within this sequel. The bit with an invisible someone playing the family piano? We get that three times, at least. Closet doors opening on their own, revealing pitch blackness containing…something…in the space between the neatly hanging shirts: twice? Three times?

Whannell once again writes himself a comic-relief supporting role, that of one half of a pair of eager-beaver ghostbusters, opposite Angus Sampson. They're moderately entertaining. The movie's moderately tense, though Wan is smart to want to get out of the old dark houses for a while. Until something hideous pulls him back in, that is.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"Insidious: Chapter 2" -- 2 1/2 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of terror and violence, and thematic elements)

Running time: 1:45

Opens: Friday

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