Paranormal & Supernatural in Review: Insidious (2011)
Director: James Wan
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Stars: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, et. al.
Synopsis: “A family looks to prevent evil spirits from trapping their comatose child in a realm called The Further.”
Release date: April 2011
Review by: Jonathan Butcher
Throughout its first half, Insidious is a wonderfully unnerving tale about a peculiar type of haunting. Then at some point along the way it becomes a goofy, balls-to-the-wall ghost train ride, complete with wacky gas-mask set pieces and a villain who is basically Darth Maul on hooves.
After the appearance of a menacing hag in the first 30 seconds, the opening credits prime you for watching scenes a little more closely than you might have otherwise. The credits roll to the sound of tense, minimalist strings played over disorienting pans of a large house. In some – or perhaps all – of the brief camera shots, something unsettling is taking place. A ghoulish face appears in a mirror. A chair is moved by an unseen force. A picture frame shifts of its own volition. And with that, the scene is set for a genuinely masterful build-up of tension, caused on some level by the creeping suspicion that unsettling things are taking place right under your, and the characters’, noses.
And they most certainly are.
The Lamberts – Mum, Dad, and three kids including a baby – have just moved in to a beautiful new house, following an unexplained “difficult period” that has clearly put a strain on the family. Mum and Dad are well drawn and believable, and while they may be somewhat dour and not the most lovable of characters, their dialogue is strong enough to keep them compelling and sympathetic.
From early on it is apparent that something in the new house is not right. Items appear in strange places. Doors open unbidden. Then one day, their eldest child Dalton simply doesn’t wake up, and no doctor who sees him can explain why.
When Dalton returns home, still apparently comatose, the previously hinted-at apparitions begin to make themselves disturbingly apparent. By this point the tension has been ratcheted up so effectively that the ghosts are genuinely terrifying, regardless of their often-undramatic appearances.
I’m being careful to avoid spoilers here, so let’s just say that it is around the halfway mark that several chilling revelations change the tone of the tale. I’m yet to see a ghost film that manages to remain frightening from beginning to end, and Insidious seems to understand and embrace this. Rather than continuing to pursue subtlety and a rising creep factor, scriptwriter Leigh Whannell must have shrugged his shoulders and said, “Fine. Let’s fucking go for it.”
When the full scale of what is at risk is revealed and the family realise that they are literally fighting for their son Dalton’s soul, spectre-filled pandemonium ensues.
Cue a pair of comic relief bungling supernatural investigators. Cue the ever-reliable Lin Shaye to play the psychic who detects and reveals the hideous truth. Cue the introduction of the family’s “visitor”, my aforementioned Sith-lord-wannabe (who encapsulates what can be achieved solely with costume and makeup, and without much, if any, CGI). And cue all manner of kooky horror film schtick, including a séance led by Lin wearing a gas mask, and a bizarre but ever-so-endearing climax that takes place beyond the veil of our reality, which looks like a cross between a smoky school disco and the video for Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart.
A minor complaint I have is the way that Lambert 4 and Lambert 5 – aka Foster and the baby – seem to vanish before the story’s halfway point. Perhaps I simply missed the explanation concerning where they went. However, it felt to me almost as if the two kids’ absence from the latter parts of the film meant that the family’s myopic concern for Dalton gave the spooks and spectres full permission to go for the younger members of the family without obstruction. I seriously doubt this was the intention though, but can anyone who has seen the film explain this to me?
I can understand why some people might not like Insidious. They might dismiss it as yet another generic ghost film in an oversaturated market, or turn their nose up at its demented “80s music video” of a climax – but I am a fan. It’s preposterous and it’s a little camp, and that’s part of the joy for me. The ending is especially unfettered and silly, but one thing you sure can’t say about Insidious is that it’s boring.
For me, Insidious is a triumph in low-budget horror filmmaking. Created for a mere $800,000, it stands as testament to the fact that mainstream-released horror movies don’t require vast amounts of computer effects to be effective. All they often need is a creative crew, a good script, a dedication to an idea and the determination to see it through to its conclusion.
The movie spawned a franchise, and while I’ve never been too fussed about following the rest of the story my recent re-watch for this review has encouraged me to go and seek them out. If you haven’t already, I’d recommend checking out Insidious for a genuine sense of unease as well as a huge injection of horrifying fun.
Jonathan Butcher is an English writer who likes to tell strange, unique, and usually dark tales. When he was 7 years old, his teacher banned him from writing about ghosts or monsters for an entire term – but he hasn’t stopped since.