If I was going to award a rating to a movie based on the number of times it caused me to twist in my seat like Norman Wisdom with a lap full of ice cubes then there’s no doubt that ‘Insidious’ would be a 5 star classic. Admittedly, I should probably qualify this by saying that I’m the sort of person who jumps when somebody pops open a new tube of Pringles but even so, I usually manage to get through most horror films without indulging in some of the more bizarre contortions this film managed to induce in me. It’s not perfect, not by a long way, and for a movie that initially conveys a highly effective mood of menace and dread, it then goes on to commit the cardinal sin of showing too much. But of all the modern horror films I’ve seen recently this is a film that, for the most part, delivers something that others rarely achieve, namely a high quality assortment of scares.
The story is a variation on a familiar theme, particularly recognisable to fans of such films as ‘Poltergeist’, ‘Paranormal Activity’ and ‘The Amityville Horror’. The Lamberts, a nice, middle class family, move into their new dream home and initially everything seems rather peachy. The parents, Josh and Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) are very much in love, both are creatively fulfilled in their careers and their three kids are as pleasant and idyllic as any modern parent could realistically hope for. However, their son Dalton seems unsettled and one day he goes to investigate some scratchy-cum-creaky noises in the attic (oh when will people in movies learn that scratchy-cum-creaky noises in the attic are bad, bad, bad?). Anyway, after falling from a ladder and seeing something terrifying, he soon lapses into a coma that Doctors are at a loss to explain.
It’s from this point on that Josh and Renai are increasingly tormented by a variety of apparitions and demons as it gradually becomes apparent that it’s not the house that is haunted but their son. And for the next hour or so ‘Insidious’ delivered so many effective scares that I was glad I wasn’t watching it with anyone who knew me and could therefore testify to my less than stellar attempts to maintain a semblance of dignity.
One of the things I give director James Wan huge credit for is the integrity with which he delivers many of the more frightening moments. For example, some horror films attempt to deliver their scares with things like sudden loud noises on the soundtrack, a harmless and familiar face suddenly appearing at a window or a cat jumping out of a cupboard. It’s an approach that is tired and clichéd, the cinematic equivalent of someone blowing up an empty crisp packet and then bursting it behind your head; it’s probably going to make you jump but its bloody annoying. ‘Insidious’ however, never employs such cheap tricks and if you’re going to jump at anything in this film, it’s usually because you’re going to see or hear something that justifies it.
Wan also knows how to ratchet up the tension prior to these yah-boo moments, moving his camera through the house in such a way that you can hardly bear to peek around the next corner. In one particularly memorable scene he gives a wonderful ‘what was that?’ glimpse of someone or something as we follow Renai through the house as she carries out her chores. It’s the best example of its kind that I think I’ve seen since a similar instance in Dario Argento’s ‘Deep Red’, the sort of moment when your eye registers something but your brain has already moved on and you only realise you saw anything at all in the scenes that follow. It’s wonderful, unsettling stuff and brilliantly conveys the sense that there’s always something lurking in the corner of your eye (the scene also makes great use of the tune ‘Tiptoe through the Tulips’).
Wan also effectively manages something of a gear change with a mid point shift into mild comic relief when a couple of ghostbusters arrive (one of whom is played by screenwriter Leigh Whannel). Keen to impress with their gadgetry but never really being prepared for what they are going to experience, their introduction could have fallen flat but actually works well as the laughs provide a welcome counterpoint to further frights. But this is all a precursor to the appearance of that staple of the haunted house movie, the little old lady with ‘the gift’. Elise (Lin Shaye) is called in by Josh’s mother (Barbara Hershey) and she soon diagnoses that only a trip to a place called ‘The Further’ will save Dalton.
Unfortunately it is from the point when the action shifts into this spectral realm that the film teeters on the verge of undoing all that had been so effective up till that point. It’s decided that Dad Josh is the only one capable of saving his son and so he must venture into this other dimension, and there find his son’s spirit and return them both to reality before a Demon takes possession of Dalton’s physical form. However, in its depiction of ‘The Further’ the movie goes too far in revealing the denizens of this ghostly plane. It still manages to conjure up some effective moments but these threaten to be overwhelmed by a mise en scène that at times looks alarmingly like the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyworld. It’s not that these ghosts and demons are unconvincing and I certainly wouldn’t want to share the upper deck of a night bus home with any of them. But we get to see them too clearly and the longer the audience gets to have a look at them the greater the risk is that the illusion will be shattered. The Demon that is hunting Dalton is a case in point. The earlier suggestions of his presence are far more unsettling than the big reveal we get towards the end. Consequently, I found myself relaxing more and more as the film progressed towards its conclusion, when what I’d been hoping for was a continuation of the tension I’d been experiencing for the first hour or so. You might say that I experienced diminishing returns the further the father went into the Further.
But for all that, I have to say that by that point ‘Insidious’ had generated sufficient goodwill with its excellent first half for me to overlook its failings, and I managed to enjoy the film for what it was rather than getting too frustrated at what it could have been. Perhaps this was helped by the fact that I watched it in a cinema with an audience who were having a tremendous time with it, yelling and screaming in a way I have rarely seen. One big, bruiser of a bloke in particular shrieked like a schoolgirl and a woman nearby felt compelled to pull her cardigan over her head at some of the more intense moments. Ultimately your enjoyment of this film may well come down to how prone you are to indulging in similar behaviour but there is still much to admire in a film that, despite its Ghost Train elements, is still quite a ride.
A fun movie, with bags of atmosphere that goes for scares over gore. It’s probably best enjoyed (and most effective) when viewed with the right group of people, so invite those friends along who are easily spooked. And make sure they don’t have any hot drinks in their hand if you’re going to be sitting next to them.