A family makes the terrifying discovery that the body of their comatose boy has become a magnet for malevolent entities, while his consciousness lies trapped in the dark and insidious realm known as The Further.
Insidious is very much a 21st century modern horror movie, which is to say it’s more interested in tricks and scares than 'horror’. It’s full of post-modern irony, in-jokes, and a storyline that abounds with stuff stolen from Great Horror Movies of the Past. It isn’t just the fact that the plot grave-robs two famous sites of horror movieland in The Exorcist and Poltergeist. For fans, Insidious is like watching a workshop masters thesis presentation on horror movie technique, which makes it kind of fun especially if you share the same references (and a taste for genre satire). Director James Wan and writer/actor/producer Leigh Whannell (the guys who started the Saw franchise) have learnt their lessons well and they know what can scare you. They understand how to set-up, stage and pay-off a fright. The film has that fashionably murky look, a nod to Asian, especially Japanese, horror that makes you feel like there’s something lurking in the shadows. (And in this movie there usually is something in the shadows.)
For what’s it worth, I saw this in a public preview and whenever anything spooky happened punters were jumping as if there seats were wired and they just got a sharp jolt of electricity to their nether regions. You get the feeling that Whannel and Wan love horror in the way some people like showtunes; behind the dedicated depth of feeling for the medium and the form there’s a certain level of self-conscious embarrassment. That might be a snide bit of criticism but consider: Insidious starts off as a seemingly sincere, atmospheric mood-piece with a genuinely frightening premise about mother-love and the haunting of a helpless child. Then, about halfway through, the tone shifts, the mood lightens, and new plot issues are introduced, none of which are as scary as the initial set up.
The film ends with a series of would-be set-piece frighteners, one of which is set in another realm, a place where ghosts call 'home’. Whatever on screen, this alternate dimension to our waking reality looks like bad amateur dinner theatre, with garish gelled lighting and a lot of dry ice and ghosts done up in ghoul make-up. If that sounds silly, it is and mostly because it has nothing at all to do with anything truly scary, like feelings and actual fears"¦ of the unknown, of having some thing one loves threatened"¦
Insidious is at its best when it pulls back on the obvious and plays on emotions rather than effects. The actors are good and that helps in setting up a world that we can invest in. It makes the spooky stuff, when it comes, creepier.
Rose Byrne plays the Mum, Renai, a stay-at-home singer/songwriter that dotes on her young family and loves her husband Josh (Patrick Wilson from Little Children). The early scenes are warm and very real. (It’s like watching a low-key art films about domestic life.)
The family have just moved into a new home, which looks like its straight out of one of those 'better living’ mags, and the last place one expects a haunting. Still, things start to go bump in the night and Renai starts to see spectral figures.
The scares in this part of the film are terrific; Wan sets his composition wide, forcing us to scan the screen, looking for trouble. When Dalton (Ty Simpkins),their eldest boy, falls off a ladder and lapses into a coma, Renai is convinced that it has something to do with ghosts. Meanwhile, Josh seems conspicuously circumspect about the supernatural goings-on, but still concedes to move house once more. When Renai spies a dancing doll in the new home she starts to really flip. What kind of ghosts are these?
Fortunately mother-in-law Loraine (Barbara Hershey) can provide a kind of answer in the form of professional physic and family friend Elise (Lin Shayne), who combines the buttoned precision of a school principal with the soothing manner of a new-age shrink. In a series of lengthy dialogues that serve up some helpful exposition about ghosts, hauntings and possession, and back-story, Elise isn’t so much a character but a plot device. This sudden deluge of plot also comes with comedy; Elise has a pair of assistants – Whannell and Aussie comic actor Angus Simpson – who dress like Mormons and take turns swapping lame-o one-liners between pretending to be experts in the 'science’ of paranormal activity.
Insidious starts off as 'straight’ horror that pays homage to the genre’s tropes and ends 'quoting’ Ghostbusters. It puts you in a strange place since for much of the movie it’s been possible to invest in the action in a very authentic way, then there’s this savage turn around in the spirit of the film. Suddenly we’re invited to look at all this spooky stuff through an ironic prism. This shift in strategy kind of kills the fun of the picture. You start to feel stupid for jumping out of your seat.