They just don’t make horror films like Insidious anymore, and by “they” we mean Hollywood. So it’s no surprise that Saw masterminds James Wan (director) and Leigh Whannell (screenwriter) opted to produce their return to the genre independently, a decision based upon past bad experiences.
In 2007, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology alums gave the big studio system a go with Dead Silence, an intended throwback about supernatural ventriloquist dummies that looked impressive and had had tons of intriguing ideas but ultimately felt choppy and incomplete. As Wan and Whannell explained to us, the big-time execs hovering over their shoulders wouldn’t allow for the filmmakers’ planned homage to Italian scare pic director Mario Bava and the old “Hammer Horror” films from the United Kingdom.
On their own this time, Wan and Whannell reach the full potential hinted at in Dead Silence with Insidious. It’s the kind of shout-at-the-screen and jump-five-feet-in-the-air rollercoaster movie that the horror genre used to consistently yield decades ago, when moviemakers were freer to rip the gloves off and assault audiences with relentlessness.
The central premise is a familiar one, rooted in cues taken from classics like Poltergeist and The Exorcist: A nice suburban family, headed by parents Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne), enters the fifth circle of Hell thanks to their young son, who possesses an ability to mentally travel between dimensions and directly into an evil realm known as The Further.
From the silent and brief pre-credits opening sequence, Wan revels in his ability to jar those seated in the darkly lit theater. For its first two-thirds, Insidious conjures scares naturalistically, with long tracking shots and steady camerawork. Wan knows how to lull the viewer into a state of still unease, a talent most noticeably flexed in a sequence that begins with a randomly set-off burglar alarm and ends with a monster of an unexpected and amazingly executed jump scare.
A similar pimp-slap to the senses comes during a surrealistic monologue from Barbara Hershey, on board as Wilson’s mother, who’s quickly willing to accept the paranormal activity as reality; as Hershey—star of the 1982 horror gem The Entity, another Insidious influence—talks about malevolent entities (*wink wink*), Wan presents the speech as if it’s of a waking dream, and then Bam!, he pours buckets of water upon calm eyes with another dynamite “Gotcha!” moment.
In Wilson and Byrne, the director has a pair of strong actors on their A-games, ready and willing to sell all of the film’s shocks with believable concern. The first half of Insidious is Byrne’s show, and she’s given the subtler task of investigating weird noises and reacting to each discovery with a mounting sense of disabling fear. In most horror movies, her role as the woman who repeatedly cries wolf wears thin after the fifth jump scare, but Whannell’s clever script doesn’t allow that to happen in Insidious.
Just as Byrne’s solid performance begins to feel one-note, Wilson becomes the protagonist as the film’s tone augments from spooky delicacy to gonzo mayhem. Renai calls in a medium (Lin Shaye, clearly having a ball) and her two goofball assistants (Angus Sampson and Whannell himself) to inspect their home, which leads to a séance scene that starts off unconventionally and tips over into all-out craziness.
From the séance onward, Wan shoots Insidious with the hyperactive joy of a horror-loving kid who’s just stepped foot into a Fangoria convention. A multitude of the director’s obscure influences and other less inventive déjà vu provokers congeal into a thick, if not slightly overcooked, stew. Ghouls with makeup right out of 1962’s Carnival Of Souls converge in the house, much like the ending of 1977’s The Sentinel; a grotesque demon goes about its business in a cluttered workshop a la the villain in Jeepers Creepers.
Insidious becomes a funhouse experience, a stark contrast from its earlier self that’s undeniably over the top. But for horror fans who can appreciate combustible finales, the take-it-or-leave-it recklessness of the movie’s finale should fill their tummies with butterflies.
Understandably, the climax inside, and outside, of The Further is also where some Insidious just might lose some viewers. The loud music cues and anarchist imagery fly off the screen like brick raindrops, but that’s precisely the point. Wan and Whannell don’t want to send audiences off with a quiet storm; they want to beat your senses into submission. Hence the film’s calmer opening stretch, and the short but well-done comic relief near the middle.
Over 100 minutes, Insidious doesn’t waste a single frame; it’s sole mission is to tie a noose around your neck from the first shot and never loosen up for breathing space. Thank the gods of terror for that; sucking the teats of tired remakes and soulless sequels, mainstream horror needed the asphyxiation.