Insidious, from Saw creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell, is a haunted house movie with no haunted house—but that’s not to say it isn’t haunting.  The film has legitimate scare value for a gore-free PG-13 release, and for a little over an hour I was certain this film could do no wrong.  Then I visited The Further.

Insidious tells the story of the Lamberts, who have just moved into a spacious and spooky new home. Mother Renai (Rose Byrne) attempts to further her songwriting career while raising their three children, Dalton (Ty Simkins), Other Son, and Annoying Baby.  Her husband Josh (Patrick Wilson) is a teacher who plays the fun parent to the kids while remaining ultimately checked out of any home drama.  One night, a couple of weeks into their new residence, Dalton wanders into an attic that opens by itself and he falls down a ladder. He appears to be fine, but he goes to sleep that night and doesn’t wake up the next morning. Dalton is in a coma for three months.

THREE MONTHS LATER. Scary shit happens!

Parts of Insidious feel eternally familiar, but that’s not a bad thing.  Riffs off The Exorcist and Poltergeist are surely intentional, with just enough twist to stay surprising. The film uses old-school scare tactics like a creaking door or glowing furnace to great effect. But what works about these traditional methods is that the scares are never precisely where you think they’ll be. The tense scenes are incredibly tense because of their unique pacing—the reveal is always a beat or two later than the audience is prepared to expect. Beyond merely startling the audience, Insidious also works on an emotional level. Dalton’s coma leaves Renai and Josh fragile and haunted even before the haunting begins. One terrific scene shows a hospice nurse teaching Renai how to insert a nasogastric tube for Dalton’s home care. The camera closes in on Renai’s face as she attempts to process her new reality. It’s sad, and scary, and real.

The first half of Insidious is tonally subdued and revealing.  The film opens on an eerie rotating globe before fading to flickering photo credits set to violin. The title card abruptly forces its way onscreen in a very Argento manner. INSIDIOUS! The movie then slowly builds with tiny character reveals that add up to an elegant and comprehensive portrait of this family. Renai and Dalton wear matching monkey PJs. Josh plucks a grey hair with alarm and uses wrinkle cream zealously. Dalton draws vivid images of himself as a superhero conquering fiends and soaring over fields. Renai labors on the piano, lulled by the metronome until she’s disturbed by the baby monitor. She tells Josh that she “want[s] things to be different in this house.”

There is very little musical scoring in each scene, other than a liberal and unnerving use of Tiny Tim whenever shit is about to go down.  Like Tiny Tim, things that shouldn’t be scary are terrifying under Wan’s surprisingly deft touch. The metronome and grandfather clock in the hall perpetually tap out the time, beat after beat. The camera swoops over a rhythmic ceiling fan that suddenly sounds like a drowning helicopter. The lighting in Insidious bleaches and contrasts until everyone in this movie looks like a ghost. The scares start to mount. The house alarm keeps going off; the front door opens by itself. We’re treated to shadowy, fast-moving glimpses of beings in the periphery of the scene. A split-second reveal of a demonic face is the first moment that motivated my surprisingly quiet audience of teenagers to yell at the screen “Oh HELL no!” Renai and Josh are rather intelligent for horror movie victims; we root for them and relate to them because they do what we would do. They decide to move to a new house.

And the scares move with them.

Unfortunately, the film stops working at this point.  Renai and Josh call an exorcist, the delightful Lin Shaye, and she employs the assistance of a couple of Ghostfacers! knock-offs (including writer Leigh Whannell).  I love a good séance and these actors are all charming, so the film shouldn’t have spiraled so quickly at this development. But a surfeit of explanation about astral projection and the afterlife (called The Further, if you will. I won’t.) destroys the momentum of the film. And then Wan and Whannell make a BAD decision. They decide to show us The Further.

I don’t really believe that any film should attempt to render Hell. There is absolutely no way of doing this effectively, other than in tiny, moment-long glimpses such as the very end of Season 3 of Supernatural—one of the most effective (and shortest) portrayals of the underworld I’ve ever seen. Hellraiser 2, What Dreams May Come, Constantine—these films fall apart once they try to execute an effectively convincing Hell. There is no way to do this onscreen, with any amount of money, on Earth. And poor Insidious, with its $1 million budget and its stupid marionettes and weak-ass black curtains and jerky old ladies in heinously lame makeup sure as shit isn’t doing it. Hollywood has yet to create a truly horrific, otherworldly dimension. Filmmakers can only create terror in that which we already know. By the time Josh ventures to The Further to rescue Dalton, an audience that was still and silent in riveted fear for the first part of the film was now laughing, snarking and taking bathroom breaks.

I never cared for the Saw films but I acknowledged the original and well-crafted conceit of the first one. Insidious is only well-crafted when it’s not original; its attempts at originality fail spectacularly. That said, the first half is solid enough that it’s absolutely worth a watch. A rental watch.


4 Responses to “Insidious”

  1. Good review, Mere! Very insightful and enjoyable! :)

  2. Uncle Mustache Says:

    I whole-heartedly agree. I was enjoying being scared so much during the first part of this film. I wanted it to continue so much that when it didn’t, it completely lost my attention. There were some great parts and I was thoroughly entertained. It almost makes me wish the movie just gave a half-assed explanation of the causes and ended after 60 minutes. I would’ve found the ending to be a bit of a cop out but overall left the theater with a general feeling of satisfaction. Like Paranormal Activity. The ending was ok, but it was so short and to the point that it didn’t really matter. The whole “it’s the journey, not the destination” concept. Maybe the last 30 minutes of the film actually was a meta portrayal of a movie-goer’s hell: an great thriller that ultimately crashes and burns into the laughable abyss.

  3. Great Review Man!! My Wife and Have Been waiting to see this, We are Going to the theatres this Weekend!! This might not scare me, but she is kind of a Novice when it comes to Horror Movies and she loves anything with Ghosts or Spirits!! At least from your review I can tell the 1st hour will be Good!!

  4. I watched this movie almost two weeks ago, and I’m still afraid to go to the bathroom by myself! This movie made me cry!

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