The team that brought you “Saw” in 2004 return with a much more – wait for it! – insidious brand of horror (I thank you!) than the gross-out, grue-centred endurance test approach so integral to the franchise that made their name. Director James Wan and his writing partner Leigh Whannell have always clearly been hooked on every conceivable style and sub-genre in the horror spectrum; although their first feature “Saw” has now become one of the founding stones of what is often seen as rather an ugly, misanthropic modern style of fright picture, the film did also pay a specific homage to the classic giallo with its outlandish twisty plotline and the iconic, semi-surreal puppet/doll prop which became the face of Jigsaw after being inspired by a particularly memorable sequence in “Dario Argento’s 1977 international smash-hit “Deep Red”. The couple’s second film further emphasised their great love of the classic era when it eschewed completely the torture porn genre they’d helped create, for a criminally underrated (check it out if you’ve not seen it) plunge into the flamboyant, stylized, colour-drenched Gothic whirlpool of Mario Bava-era Italian horror from the 1960s, in the form of the still massively fun and creepy “Dead Silence”. Now the haunted house movies and the possession films of the ‘70s and ‘80s provide the inspiration for the largely enjoyable creep-fest that is “Insidious”.
The film has been received with a mix of rave reviews and slightly bemused shrugs from a section of the horror community who acknowledge it as an above-average joy ride but can’t see for the life of them why it has been compared to, say, “The Exorcist” by some critics, when “Poltergeist” would appear to be the true touchstone for this over-the-top, show-stopping spook spectacular. It seems to me there are two ways of looking at the film: one is that it is a hugely well-made and cleverly mounted haunted house flick which excels in subtle chills and shock moments for its first two acts but then goes off the rails -- plunging into a garish form of fantasy horror in the final half-hour, which feels far from insidious in its overuse of the ‘in-yer-face ‘approach. The other way of looking at it is that this is Wan and Whannell doing what they have always done best, but in perhaps their most successful setting yet. This is a film which looks like it has been written and directed as a prime example of the kind of ‘mosaic’ pastiche approach which is starting to become almost ubiquitous among young filmmakers these days; that is, almost every scene can be traced back to a specific predecessor with the whole story being interpretable as being constructed around a series of tributes to other haunted house and possession flicks. Filmmakers have always indulged themselves by re-creating stand-out moments, mimicking camera positions etc., from their own favourite films as a small form of memento to their own movie inspirations when growing up; these often go completely unnoticed by audiences until they are pointed out by the director sometime later. These days though, whole films are being made this way, with stories contrived to provide the moments that enable the director to fulfil an urge to list every film he’s ever seen that might at some point have played a role in his becoming a filmmaker. “Insidious” is one of the best examples of this approach, which explains why it feels the need to catapult itself into the irrational red gel-lit world of Argento worship at the end, after what had previously been a much more careful and measured build up. Accept the film on these latter terms though -- as a ‘best of’ collection of sequences from a favourite genre -- and it becomes a great deal of fun indeed, also distinguished by a more than average number of truly scary moments, arresting images, dread atmosphere and (at the end) grand theatrical excess.
Part of the problem for Wan and Whannell is that they are just too successful in crafting their truly creepy opening act: the titles sequence alone provides a lovingly rendered, almost subliminal tribute to perhaps the granddaddy of all haunted house-cum-possession movies (one grounded in the subtle chill of Victorian proto-Freudianism provided by Henry James’ source novella “The Turn of the Screw”) that is Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents” -- with Wan taking that classic film’s beautiful monochrome scope photography and its cinematographer Freddie Francis’s method of painting out the sides of the frame in black so as to focus attention on the centre of the screen, and using them as the mood-setter for a story that also involves a house being invaded by malevolent, demonic spirits that come to focus their attentions on corrupting an innocent child. The trouble is, once you’ve successfully set up a situation which seems to be all about subtlety and ambiguity, as was Clayton’s film, you risk alienating the section of the audience that has bought into that when you suddenly switch gears and start indulging your love for the deranged insanity of Dario Argento’s supernatural films and the pop fantasy gothic-lite of Tim Burton’s Bavaesque world.
Once its classic monochrome tones bloom into full colour, the film deals with setting up the family dynamics which must be at the heart of all good haunting tales, and establishes the house itself as a living entity in the drama to come: Renai Lambert (the lovely Rose Byrne) is struggling to balance her role as a mother of three young children with being a songwriter who needs to work from home during the day; dad Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) is a schoolteacher who suffers from anxiety that leads him to avoid stressful situations in life. Meanwhile, young Dalton (Ty Simpkins) doesn’t like the bedroom of the new house the family has just moved into, established in a series of recurring, low-angle, stately tracking shots as a slightly more modern-looking version of the Amityville house. While exploring the attic, Dalton suffers a fall and bruises his head badly. The next morning he is found in a coma, yet the neurologists at the hospital can find nothing specifically wrong with him. Eventually, the boy is brought back home to his bedroom and Renai and Josh learn to care for him, still none the wiser as to what has actually caused this mysterious condition in their son. All this time, strange things have started to happen around the house: objects are apparently moving about by themselves and Renai’s box of song manuscripts is found deposited in the creepy attic even before anyone has been up there. The couple’s other son Foster (Andrew Ambert) claims that the comatose Dalton walks around in the night; raspy voices muttering on the baby monitor spook Renai; bedroom doors swing open by themselves and a violent rapping on the front door in the dead of night wakes the family. Then Renai’s sees a malevolent face, peering through the window into the baby’s nursery, and bloody handprints materialise on Dalton’s bed sheets!
Wan sets up a really strong atmosphere here, using the 2.40:1 scope aspect ratio to full advantage in order to establish the house as a forbidding presence in which anything might be seen lurking in the corner of the frame, and sometimes is. When Renai and Josh actually do what no-one ever usually does in a haunted house picture (i.e. move out) and go off to stay with Josh’s mother instead (played by Barbara Hershey in a piece of casting which pays tribute to her own classic haunting flick “The Entity”) things actually get worse. This time out, the mother’s house doesn’t even look remotely like the kind of abode in which you’d expect to find demonic presences and mischievous spectres lurking: there are no dark corners and no air of fusty malevolence issuing from darkened rooms here. Yet this is where the film issues its finest scares with some of the best and most uncanny cinematic ghostly manifestations seen on the big screen in years, made all the more disquieting for their appearance in such subdued and ordinary surroundings.
Soon Renai has to admit that the strange leering figures and monstrous manifestations have followed the family to its new location, and furthermore, Josh’s mother believes her, citing a dream in which she mentions seeing exactly the same demon presence described by Renai, looming over Dalton while he sleeps. The family calls in some ‘experts’, already known to Loraine from when she herself had to turn to them for help when Josh was a child. It turns out that Josh was born with the ability to have out of body experiences – astral projections in which he is able to enter a limbo world between life and death called The Further – and that this ability has been inherited by Dalton. A middle section in which Lin Shaye plays medium Elise Rainier, who comes to investigate along with two geeky sidekicks who spend most of their time engaged in ill-natured but comical one-upmanship and are played by Angus Sampson and writer Leigh Whannel himself, is most obviously indebted to Tobe Hopper’s “Poltergeist”, although the inevitable séance scene is considerably weirded up by Elise donning a WW2-style gasmask during the procedure -- which seems more like a nod to the bizarre contraptions involved in Jigsaw’s murderous games than it does to anything from the ‘possession film’ genre.
The film steps up several gears when it is revealed that Dalton has got lost in a spirit limb which is inhabited by spectres and demonic presences that want to use his vacant body in order to manifest themselves in the physical world. Only Josh can follow Dalton into this realm and rescue him from the malevolent entities. This is where the plot allows Wan to indulge his love of the baroque and the operatic side of European art house horror. The director fills his dark fantastic limbo with doll-like spectres in Victorian dress and cackling night hags, and the usual hyperkinetic modern cine-style is let off the leash again in order to lard the proceedings with constant jump scares. These ghostly creatures exist against the backdrop of a version of the Lamberts’ old house, inhabiting the empty rooms like drifting mannequins; while up in the attic a glowing red door provides the gateway to an ornate, nightmare fantasyland bathed in red, where a loony fire-faced demon lives surrounded by strange-looking dolls in a Gothic dream space that looks like something out of Cocteau’s “La Belle et la Bête”.
This is a far cry from the suggestive, allusive chills of the opening section of the film, but for me, the whole work exists as a tribute to every form and manifestation of the genre, from “The Innocents” to “The Amityville Horror” to “Suspiria”. The plot inevitably gets more comic-book in its treatment of the subject matter once we get to the last act, and this runs counter to the principles of the traditional ghost story referenced at the start of the film, but there are still some lovely macabre moments and pleasingly offbeat images and ideas here – Josh’s mother revealing old family polaroid photos from the 1970s which depict Josh as a boy being stalked by a gruesome night hag apparition who seems to be getting closer in each shot, is a striking modern version of a device from an old MR James ghost story, for instance, which also seems to reference a 1980s TV adaptation of Susan Hill’s “The Woman in Black” by Nigel Kneal. But it all add up to an enjoyable old-style funhouse ride through the best ‘boo’ moments of classic haunted house pictures. It’s not destined to be remembered as the game-changing piece of horror cinema its primary influences and reference points were in many cases, but it still stands up well alongside Sam Raimi’s throwback “Drag Me to Hell” as an entertaining slice of ghostly nerve-jangling hokum.
Momentum Pictures are doing the honours for the film’s UK Blu-ray/DVD release which features a strong HD transfer but only a small collection of featurettes as extras; ‘Horror 101: The Exclusive Seminar’ sees Wan and Whannell discussing the genre influences which went into the making of the film, while ‘On the Set with Insidious’ features behind the scenes footage showing the light-hearted atmosphere on Wan’s film set. ’Insidious Entities’ examines the thinking behind the designs of the various ghostly and demonic creatures, such as the black-painted demonic presence with the lipstick smeared face (who is actually played by the composer of the film’s strident score!), the dancing boy and the leering woman in black (played by a man in drag). The theatrical trailer rounds off this small selection of extras.
“Insidious” is a lovingly crafted old-school supernatural film with excellent and varied production design and strong performances all-round, making it a very re-watchable experience that establishes James Wan as a committed, knowledgeable fan of horror with an eye for adapting the full range of his varied influences in a popular form. Well worth a look.