Now it’s no secret I love a good ghost story, and of all the various horror tropes, it’s tales of spooks and hauntings that are most likely to steal my sleep (as can be seen from my list of the flicks that frightened me). So given my predilection for all things spectral, it was inevitable I’d take a trip to see Insidious. However the tagline on the posters did give me pause for thought - ‘from the makers of Saw and Paranormal Activity’ sounded like a clash of polar opposites as the glossy Hollywood gore of Jigsaw is surely at the other end of the horror spectrum to the creeping dread of a hand held haunting.
However on reflection, perhaps the gap isn't so great. Despite whatever you think about the Saw franchise, you have to concede the point that despite all the fuss about alleged ‘torture porn’ the series has two things over most other horror sagas - a strong continuing story line and a lead villain who has far more dimensions your typical Jason/Michael Myers slasher psychopath knock-off. And the original Saw had a solid mystery at its core, and was as much about intrigue and mystery as it was about the blood.
But also it was encouraging that after the usual pre-release of carping about PG-13/15 horror movies Insidious started to gather a lot of praise from within the horror community, not to mention gaining a reputation for being properly scary. After all, Sam Raimi had delivered a fun, solid horror with the same certification with Drag Me To Hell, could Insidious do the same?
Now the set up for the story is fairly straight forward, a young family move into a brand new house and as expected, very soon things start to go bump in the night. However this isn’t quite the usual scenario of a residence having some most unwelcome ethereal squatters as this a haunting with a twist. Or rather several twists, none of which I shall spoil here even though some trailers to do reveal the first swerve the story pulls, for I believe the film will work better if you don’t know the ins and outs before you see it.
But what I will say is that Insidious is essentially a three act tale. The opening chapter plays out like a more Hollywood version of Paranormal Activity and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. It’s very well crafted, swiftly delivering some memorable scares but taking just enough time to build up a creepy atmosphere too. In many respects, this first act is the core of Oren Pelli’s film but without the slow pace and shaky cam that alienated some viewers.
However then the film unveils its first twist, and moves into territory that is reminiscent of the Spielberg/Hooper classic Poltergeist. So we have ghost hunters and their gadgets entering the fray, and the haunting itself intensifies from shadowy shapes and mysterious sounds into more tangible phenomena. However the special effects are never allowed to run riot, and despite the moments of comic relief the double act of paranormal investigators bring to the table, the movie maintains the atmosphere it has built up and continues to deliver the frights.
However it has a second big twist up its sleeve that kicks off the third and final chapter. Now I can’t reveal much about this last act while still under the spoiler embargo but I will say that it is the make or break point for the movie. Some will love the imagination and mythos that enters the plot at this point while other will undoubtedly feel that the movie has lurched too far into the fantastic. Now personally I really liked where the story goes at this point even though you can hear the seams of the budget straining at a couple of points. But overall, it’s inventive, ambitious and packed with weird imagery.
All in all, I had of ton of fun with Insidious, although the film is not without it’s niggles. For example while we have a strong cast featuring decent performances from our leads Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson, who play the parents and provide a solid dramatic anchor for the story line, plus pleasing supporting turns from cult favourites Barbara Hershey and Lin Shaye, the script has the tendency to frequently let Captain Exposition possess the characters. But while at times it may feel at little overly overt and you feel the script perhaps could have done with another polish to insert he necessary plot points with more finesse, it’s not necessarily a deal breaker, as I felt it was an acceptable trade-off to keep the pace of the movie progressing a fair clip.
Similarly there isn't much in the way of character development, but again to adding more depth would mean adding to the run time. And at the end of the day Insidious is looking to scare the pants off you plain and simple. There’s nothing more than that going on here, unlike say The Blair Witch Project which also serves as mediation on film-making or Paranormal Activity which is as much about Mica and Katie’s relationship as it is about the terrors in the night. But there’s nothing wrong with a horror movie that is solely focused on giving its audience a very poor night’s sleep, and judging by the review on IMDB, Insidious has succeed in its aims. Indeed, I suspect that many of felt that the previously mentioned movies wasted too much time talking rather than scaring will embrace Insidious with open arms.
Now I do have a further bone to pick with the movie, and that is that if you are well acquainted with the horror genre, you may feel that Insidious is somewhat derivative and you’ll won’t need to possess powers of clairvoyance to how it’s going to end. However I can’t really go into details here so we’ll discuss that in the follow-up spoiler review...
...But the fact I’m going to bother with a second part to this review to debate the matter is telling enough. Yes, it’s not a perfect movie, and yes it’s a mainstream horror but its strengths outweigh its weakness by a long chalk. For example, Insidious does indulge in the typical jump scare shenanigans but I found that much of the time, what is revealed in this moments was often something strange and unsettling that it was the weirdness of the imagery that raised the hairs on the back my neck rather the sudden shocks. With clever editing it’s not hard to jolt an audience, but to make the flesh creep with whatever springs into the frame takes real imagination. And Insidious does that rather well, with many moments where you are left wondering “what the HELL was that?” and distinctly unnerved.
And yes, some of the images in Insidious did make an unwelcome return when I turned out the lights and retired to bed. Now it didn't give me a sleepless night, but the fact that it lingered in the mind of this jaded horror fan and prompted a moment’s hesitation when I reached to the lamp switch is still a fairly decent accolade. In many ways, this is the perfect movie for a Halloween night and indeed I'm looking forward to watching it again on a dark winter's night. For with Insidious, James Wan, Leigh Whannel and Oren Pelli have crafted a great Ghost Train of a film; scary fun but without being too hokey and fast paced with exciting twists and turns. It may lack the intelligence and subtlety of the real classics of haunted house cinema and while it may be more entertaining that traumatising, its imaginative mix of thrills and frights make Insidious a real delight.
JIM MOON, 17th May 2011