From the creators of “Saw” comes this low-budget ghost story. Gore hounds and CGI buffs might be disappointed in this decidedly old-fashioned flick, but give it a chance and it’ll get under your skin…
Sometimes, a movie just works in spite of itself.
“Insidious” has no right being as entertainingly scary as it is. It rips off classics from the horror genre, its imagery is derivative, and the overblown 3rd act all but squanders the strong groundwork built up in the first two-thirds. In spite of all that, it is one hell of a creepy cinematic experience.
The keyword here is cinematic. A film like “Insidious” is meant to be watched in the cinema, with other audience members along for the ride. Movie-going — genre pics in particular — work best as a communal activity. When everyone laughs, cheers or cowers at the same thing on screen, there is a certain energy in the air. Of all the genres, (good) horror probably has the most charged atmosphere, a tangible vibe generated by that common fear. This is what each viewer simultaneously emanates and absorbs on a subliminal level.
I went to watch “Insidious” alone, and without the distraction of company, I was able to observe the reactions of the strangers around me. It was fascinating to say the least. Some cringed behind the cover of half-parted fingers, too scared to look yet too morbidly curious not to. Others let out whispers of “Oh, shit” whenever something frightening was about to happen. There were two loud-mouthed guys seated a few rows away who had been yakking away throughout the trailers and into the start of the movie. But when the scares began to kick in, they fell deathly silent, totally caught up in the moment. They were in tune with the mood of the room. That’s the power of Cinema. The power of shared emotions.
Now what exactly had we shared in the first place? “Insidious” is basically a very simple ghost story. And the story goes… Not long after Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) move into a new home, tragedy strikes. Their eldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falls into a coma following a minor accident. Then things start to get really disturbing. Renai hears sounds and sees things that are there one instant, and gone the next. Soon, it escalates into a full-blown haunting. Comparisons to “Poltergeist” are inevitable. The twist here, as a medium tells them, is that it’s not the house that’s haunted, it is their son. Which is a cooler way of saying ‘demonic possession’. On top of this, the filmmakers have added another concept that I won’t spoil for you. Paranormal enthusiasts will appreciate the explanation for why the child is in a coma and why evil spirits are able to use him to enter our world. It also ties into Josh’s own past, a plot device that puts him in an unwitting hero’s role late in the film.
Director James Wan has gone for a distinctly old-school approach in creating the chills. It’s partly out of budgetary restraints; US$1.5 million is pocket money by Hollywood standards. I suspect it was also a conscious creative choice. In this case, the spartan production values work in the film’s favour. The typically flashy visual-effects showcases and bucketloads of in-your-face gore, staples of the genre, are conspicuously absent here. Wan employs the best special effect of all: imagination. He understands that what is most terrifying is not knowing what’s around the corner, behind the door, or in the pitch darkness beyond the dim glow of a lantern. No million-dollar CGI monster can ever trump the plain and simple fear of the unknown.
Audio also plays a major part in upping the dread factor. Creaky floorboards, disembodied voices, and weird noises are among the film’s very smart use of sound design to constantly put the audience on edge. Then there is Joseph Bishara’s melodramatic, gothic-flavoured score, full of screaming strings and discordant notes. It all makes for very uncomfortable viewing, but that’s the point.
Of course, an effective ghost story can’t be all tease and no payoff. There are ghosts aplenty, though they’re pretty much just actors in fright make-up, buried in deep shadow. You can’t get any more low-tech than that! CGI is used only where the shots cannot be achieved in-camera, like a demon scaling a wall in pursuit of its prey. Wan’s reliance on mostly traditional methods actually makes the creatures more vital and ironically, more “physical”. Their sense of presence makes them feel more threatening.
It’s a shame then, that the look of the spirits is so unoriginal. They’re obviously “inspired” by iconic horror films like “The Shining”, “The Exorcist”, and if we’re being brutally honest, a certain bad guy from the “Star Wars” universe (you’ll know it when you see it). If Wan’s crew had lavished the same inventiveness on the creature design as they did on the sound design, we’d have a really special movie on our hands. It’s not that the ghosts aren’t scary, it’s just that they could’ve been much scarier had they not been so familiar. As if to compensate, the film goes all out with the jump scares. Too bad, shock tactics can only be used so many times before the audience starts to anticipate it.
This lack of restraint also accounts for the film’s biggest flaw: the way its climax is handled. Having spent a good hour carefully cultivating the tension up to almost unbearable levels, Wan must’ve felt the need to make everything bigger and louder. Wrong move. More isn’t necessarily more, and frankly I’m puzzled as to why he would abandon his subtle, minimalist approach for a bombastic 3rd act. At this point, the film actually becomes LESS scary with all the frantic, over-the-top stuff going on. It almost derails the movie. Almost.
The cast rescues the film from the brink of silliness. Patrick Wilson (“Watchmen”) underplays it really well, first with detached scepticism, then with the quiet desperation of a man who has no idea what he’s doing but has to do it anyway. It would be too easy to overact in a movie like this. Wilson’s an intuitive performer, and he rightly knew that keeping his character as grounded as possible would make the horror more believable. Rose Byrne (“28 Weeks Later”) also gives a nice, understated performance, but with just enough tearful panic so that the audience genuinely fears for the safety of this woman and her family.
Wan continues the tradition of putting his writing partner Leigh Whannell in his movies. Here, Whannell is paired with Angus Sampson as nerdy assistants of the medium (Lin Shaye). They bring a welcome tinge of comic relief to the grave proceedings, and I liked their bizarre ghostbusting equipment. Shaye does a good job of making her ridiculous expository dialogue sound like the truth. Having good actors like these make a huge difference between “Insidious” feeling like a cheap B-movie and coming across as a serious — and successful — exercise in horror.
For all its flaws, “Insidious” is an encouraging sign of a maturing artist. The film is in every way an improvement over his previous efforts, especially his solid (but rough-around-the-edges) “Saw”. Malaysians should be proud of Wan, since he is a Kuching boy who’s made good in Hollywood. If Wan and co-writer Whannell keep improving their writing (still their biggest weakness), it’s not hard to imagine them giving us a true genre classic one day. As it is, “Insidious” is good enough to deliver some major scares.
Go watch it in the cinema, if only to check out other people’s responses. That’s already half the fun.
Storyteller by trade and dreamer by nature, Wai has been deeply nuts about the celluloid world since the first time he discovered he could watch a story instead of reading it. But he likes writing about it. Wai goes by a single name because he likes to avoid any “Imperial entanglements” (a.k.a. “conflict of interest with the powers that be” for those of you who don’t speak Star Wars) in his employment. Plus, cool people use one-word names. He has just set up a movie website, the first of its kind in Malaysia, in an effort to foster greater filmic knowledge for the rakyat. Check out Electroshadow.