In the first film, Josh's son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) went astral travelling (apparently such a talent runs in families) but strayed too far from his body. Imprisoned by a demon that looked more like Darth Maul, Dalton couldn't get back in order to wake up, and he spent most of the film in a medically inexplicable coma. Hence the decision by Josh and wife Renai (Rose Byrne) to turn to Elise (Lin Shaye), a psychic who thought she could help by sending Josh (also capable of astral travel) into the Further after Dalton. Trouble is, Josh was haunted by a mysterious old woman, intent on possessing Josh's body, and it isn't Josh that comes back.
Fast forward to Chapter 2 and the Lamberts are now staying with Josh's mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey). Strange happenings are still going on, like the piano playing by itself in an empty room, or baby Kali's babywalker switching itself on. Lorraine begins to see a mysterious woman in white wandering through the house, a woman who physically attacks Renai when she's home alone. Indeed, these scenes of ghostliness are some of the best in the film, using taut suspense to unsettle the home. All is not at all well.
Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), the amusing ghost hunting nerds from the first film, are devastated at Elise's death, but accidentally discover footage shot in 1986 of Elise's first meeting with a teenaged Josh, during which he was made to forget his astral travel abilities to keep the old woman at bay. Along with Carl (Steve Coulter), a psychic present at the 1986 meeting, Specs, Tucker and Lorraine begin contacting Elise, and investigating exactly who this shadowy figure is.
The film is not without its flaws. There is a lot of explaining - no character can do or say anything without feeling the need to expound at length about the why and the what of almost everything. Wan, believe me, the audience gets it. The motivation of the old woman is to regain childhood...so why target Josh when he's an adult? Josh's gift is originally described as unique but given Dalton's ability, that's clearly not the case. Surely it stands to reason that others can do the same thing, and the old woman would be better off looking for someone else to persecute. There's also a time travel paradox, since apparently time does not function in the Further, meaning the present day Josh, trapped in the Further, can now influence the hauntings from the first film, and also the seance in 1986. Of course, time travel paradoxes only exist if you accept the premise that time is linear, and given the spectral construction of the Further it's entirely possible that time would not behave in a linear fashion, but I don't want to get into existential discussions here. The motivation of the woman in white is also unsatisfactory, and I felt the final denouement was just too 'neat', as if Wan realised he needed to keep running time down and simply tacked on an ending.
That said, there's much to admire. The set design of the Lambert house is far creepier than either of the houses in the first film, being more of a Victorian homage to claustrophobia. The character of Dalton is a revelation, given far more to do than in the first film, and he proves to be a resourceful, brave and intelligent character. Renai even surprises with sudden bursts of courage, despite her propensity to run around screaming, and Specs and Tucker balance the suspense with their 'bromance' bickering. Patrick Wilson is truly astonishing in his dual role as Possessed Josh and Trapped in the Further Josh. Possessed Josh is creepy and genuinely unsettling, and I hadn't thought Wilson capable of such dexterity. While I'd like to sit James Wan down and have a solid discussion about use of narrative in a Gothic horror film, I do think there is a lot to admire in his direction, and Insidious 2 veers closer to his recent success, The Conjuring, than the original film.
I wouldn't recommend Insidious 2 for anyone who hasn't seen the original film, but those who enjoyed the first film, and the eerie world it created, then I'd highly recommend Chapter 2.
Four blunt pencils!