The mainstream horror movie is in a fairly dire place these days, dominated primarily by remakes of once relevant films—or by films so derivative they might as well be remakes. I’ve wondered out loud, more than once, why the last 10 years, which have been characterized by yet-another-endless-war, economic catastrophe, and rampantly obvious government corruption, have failed to produce horror films as gloriously deranged and cleansing as the films produced in a similarly troubled America in the 1960s and 1970s. Contemporary filmmakers have been inspired not to create their own visions, but to update prior portraits of unease and discontent in a shallow attempt at relevancy. Now and then a filmmaker will indeed make a grubby, disturbing, timely little film, only to see it go virtually unreleased. (Stuart Gordon has made two of the best horror films of the last decade—Edmond and Stuck—and more people saw a random Saw sequel in its fifth week of release than both films combined.)
Which is to say that, in this climate, Insidious, a pretty good yet extremely derivative horror film, is sadly one of the best horror films I’ve seen in major release in years. Director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell, the team responsible for Saw and the more effective Death Sentence, are clearly after a horror film that turns the clock back several years to a time when less might be considered more, when a director could potentially hold back to aim for a cumulative effect as opposed to one annoying fake or jump scare after another. Insidious, basically a remake of Poltergeist, is trying to bring the haunted-house movie into the 21st century without losing the low-fi appeals of the subgenre, such as the clanks in the night, or the inexplicable shadows in the corner.
The film concerns the efforts of Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) to save their young son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) from a group of otherworldly entities who’ve targeted him for mysterious reasons that will be revealed, of course, by the film’s end. After a few traditional acts of demonic terrorism (misplaced objects, scratchy voices on a baby monitor), Dalton falls into a deep coma for reasons that defy medical explanation. Josh, a blandly hunky teacher of some sort, withdraws from the family, suddenly claiming he has to stay at work late to grade papers when he’s never had to before. Which leaves Renai stuck in the creepy house struggling to nurture her three children as the threat of whatever’s targeting them grows more and more unavoidable and overwhelming.
It appears that Wan and Whannell are trying to grow up a little as filmmakers with Insidious, and it’s easily their most assured and entertaining film. Wan isn’t much of a stylist, but he orchestrates the scares confidently, and he’s clearly learned a few tricks from the John Carpenter playbook of allowing the audience to see things in the frame that the characters can’t, while Whannell’s script is generally funny and scary in the places it’s supposed to be. And one scene, the obligatory séance encounter that includes a physic ghostbuster played by Lin Shaye, is a kooky knock-out—a bizarrely terrifying marriage of exploding light bulbs and a gas mask that recalls Blue Velvet.
Yet Insidious is still basically a toy that’s devoid of nearly all subtext and symbolism, an exercise more than a movie, which is a pronounced disappointment considering that the first half at least flirts with exploring the damage that a sick child can do to a marriage (the film’s ending, a nice sick joke, belatedly returns to this theme). Renai is initially set up as the family’s true source of strength, but Wan and Whannell wimp out on that idea with a lame third-act revelation that puts Josh at center stage.
Disappointments aside, it’s clear more than ever before that these filmmakers are talented, and there’s one scene here that’s authentically terrific, a moment in which Wan and Whannell achieve something deeper than scares of the enjoyable bump-in-the-night variety: Josh, skeptical of the ghostbuster’s claim that their son has been intermingling with the dead and damned for some time, comes upon a series of pictures that Dalton has drawn of his otherworldly trips, pictures that would generally be glossed over as child’s play, as fantasies you humor with a polite half nod to as you crack your five o’clock beer. For a few minutes, the filmmakers truly earn their title, capturing with shocking poignancy how easily we can let someone we love get away from us…right under our noses.
The blues and blacks are a little soft, which particularly hurts the clarity of the inter-dimensional hide and seek that compromises most of the third act. The reds pop with shocking clarity that surpasses the theatrical print though, which considerably enhances the creepiness of that Darth Maul-like baddie. The audio presentation is much more successful, ably balancing the flamboyant horror-movie score with the more subtle ambient sounds that can make or break this type of film. Overall, a decent presentation.
The extras aren't any more substantial than the filler you find on a typical DVD, but they are more relaxed, a nice deviation from the absurd self-seriousness that characterizes most kiss-ass promo materials. In "Horror 101," James Wan and Leigh Whannell briefly discuss the various types of films they were riffing on with Insidious, which originated with their desire to make a haunted-house movie that morphed into a possession film, among other things. "On Set with Insidious" lets us see the crew on set filming and clowning around, with the most charming episode pertaining to Wan's efforts to convince Tyler Simpkins that the scary demons aren't real. "Insidious Entities" gives the costume and makeup specialists the spotlight, allowing them to discuss the various period influences that went into creating the film's silly but admittedly neat demons. Taken together, the three features offer about 25 minutes of material that succinctly celebrates a group of technicians who appear to be giddy at the opportunity for paid make-belief. Soft-soapy? You bet, but at least these features are fun.
An engagingly unassuming presentation of an effective yet disappointingly derivative shocker.