I saw Insidious Chapter 2 last weekend. When discussing the film industry, and particularly the horror film industry, complaining about sequels is about as useful an endeavor as seeking to arrest the rotation of the earth. Given that Insidious was one of the most profitable movies of 2011, a follow-up wasn’t just inevitable, it was a command from God Almighty. According to Box Office Mojo, on a paltry $1.5 million budget, the film brought in a take (world-wide) of $97 million. For say, Iron Man 3 to have been similarly profitable, it would have had to make over $13 billion. So, of course, Chapter 2 has come along, and its more-generous-but-still-chump-change $5 million has already turned into over $70 million, and counting. Obviously, more is on the way.
Almost as inevitable as its existence is the fact that Insidious Chapter 2 is a disappointment. While it has a few effectively chilling jump scares, and some nice production design, its plot is an over-complicated mess and relies on great reams of exposition that not only make very little sense, but are also sadly prosaic. Mystery vanishes, and with it goes most of the horror.
There are, of course, good sequels. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is perhaps the most famous case of a sequel surpassing the already masterful original in almost every way. There are also good horror franchises: the Frankenstein films produced by Hammer Studios are (with a couple of exceptions) remarkably consistent in quality, originality, and interest. So I find myself trying to parse a few of the elements that can help or hinder a horror franchise. And here I am trying to set aside, as much as possible, the obvious issue of the talent of the creators. In the case of Insidious Chapter 2, we have the same director, writer and cast as the previous film, and earlier this summer, director James Wan scored with the excellent The Conjuring. So what went wrong?
Fundamentally, I believe that Insidious is too complete as a story to lead to successful sequelization. Its cliffhanger ending is not an invitation to ask, “What happened next?” but rather the traditional dark horror resolution that leaves the viewer (reader/player/etc) in a state of continuing dread, horrified but not expecting a follow up (Henry James never felt the need to pump out The Turn of the Screw 2: Screw U 2). The story is done; no further explanation is required or even desired. But come the sequel, suddenly that ending must be qualified, explained, and the thrust of the second plot is the overturning of the first film’s ending.
Furthermore, the longer a franchise runs, the more difficult it will be to frighten the audience, particularly if the protagonists remain the same — our worry that something permanent will happen to them diminishes with each iteration. If the protagonists change, but the antagonists (read: monsters) don’t, then familiarity breeding contempt becomes the other problem.
Is a multiple film/book/game/etc horror franchise possible, then? For self-interested reasons, among others, I would like to believe it is. If the first story is conceived of, from the start, as being just that — a first story — then multiple episodes could well work, assuming that the whole is properly structured from the beginning. In cases where it is the (perhaps unexpected) success of the first installment that leads to a demand for more, then that story really has to invite the “What happens next?” question. The Omen (1976) is a good example here. In the case of the Hammer Frankensteins, a move that might, at first blush, have made sequels impossible (the monster is dissolved in an acid bath at the conclusion of 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein) instead opened an intriguing door: if the monster is destroyed, what does Frankenstein himself get up to? And so the scientist became the center of those films, rather than the lumbering monster of the Universal movies.
As a final note, based on this argument, I’m tempted to say that Wan’s The Conjuring would lend itself to sequels more easily than Insidious. The protagonists of The Conjuring have already had many supernatural adventures, and one is led to expect many more. So this film is just one terrifying episode among many. As for Insidious, [SPOILER ALERT] it can only continue if either a) its central family is attacked again; or b) a friendly ghost takes over as protagonist. One solution is tiresome, the other ridiculous. The filmmakers appear to have chosen the latter.
I suppose, though, I should be grateful they didn’t choose both.