Jump scares are diabolical things. When you're new to the movie game, they come without warning, flying around corners, crashing with the screech of soundtrack strings, bouncing you out of your seat and launching whatever popcorn or candy you had in your lap into low earth orbit.
But even when you see them coming, even when you're trying to suppress your inevitable reaction, they can still send an involuntary shiver up your spine and reduce you to a hapless puppet dancing at the mercy of the director's strings.
If you enjoy jump scares, "Insidious: Chapter 2" should pay high dividends. If, however, you do not enjoy spending 90-plus minutes in a dark theater while a director tries to scare you with loud noises and quick flash cuts, please avoid this film.
"Insidious 2" picks up soon after the climactic events of 2010's first film, where Josh Lambert (played by Patrick Wilson) had to travel into an alternate dimension called "The Further" in order to rescue his comatose son from a demon who was trying to take over his body. With that ordeal resolved, the Lamberts are a nuclear family again. But a series of ghostly disturbances suggest that their troubles are far from over, and even worse, that Josh may not be Josh anymore.
With her husband's identity in doubt, the protagonist becomes Josh's wife Renai (Rose Byrne), who takes the brunt of all the paranormal harassment. She's the one to go chasing after the piano which mysteriously plays by itself until you stick your head into the room. She's the one who has to panic when the ghosts mess with her infant daughter. She's the one who gets slapped around by whatever is haunting their classic (clichéd?) Victorian house. At times like these, it would be great to turn to a supportive husband; it's just too bad he might be possessed by a demon.
In the meantime, her mother-in-law (Barbara Hershey) has enlisted the help of a few wanna-be Ghostbusters to solve the mystery. This crew — former associates of another paranormal investigator named Elise, who had helped the Lamberts in the first film until the demon killed her — spends the film uncovering the story behind the hauntings and providing some well-timed (and sometimes not-so-well-timed) comic relief to diffuse all the jump-scare tension.
All this, however, is merely filler to take the audience from jump scare A to jump scare B, as director James Wan (who also directed the first installment, as well as last month's "The Conjuring") drops the volume to an eerie quiet and leads the actors into some gaping room or dark corridor that is dreadful enough that you know something is about to happen.
When you take the jump scares away, there's nothing all that original or compelling about the story or the characters to keep you interested. "Insidious 2" doesn't offer you anything you haven't seen before: ghosts reflected in mirrors, kids with strange powers, pianos that play by themselves. This is a film that is by the book, and may make you wish the library would order some new stock.
But that may not be the point. Even if you feel them coming, there are moments in "Insidious 2" that will make you jump out of your chair. Other moments (involving a pair of wanna-be Ghostbusters) will make you laugh. Some moments will make you laugh when the filmmakers were probably hoping you would jump out of your chair. And there are a few moments where you are supposed to laugh, but you just wind up feeling kind of awkward.
"Insidious 2" really wants you to be happy, but it's far too much of an uneven mess to do it very well. The best audience for this film may be dating couples who are looking for an excuse to jump into each other's arms in fright, or maybe teenagers looking for a PG-13 movie that will deliver a few scares.
Speaking of which, "Insidious 2" is rated PG-13 for strong frightening content that is much too intense for younger children, but far from any R-rated levels of gore or violence. There is some scattered profanity, but no sexual content aside from a vague subplot that echoes Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho."
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.