The ads for Insidious proclaim that it was made by some people who were responsible for two recently successful horror franchises. The first among them is the Saw franchise, which really doesn’t impress me. The quality of the Saw films aside (I still haven’t seen a one of them), that series went through seven installments. Seven films, each one made by its own production staff the size of a small army, with management of the series changing hands through several producers, writers and directors over the years. At this point, it’s almost as impressive as saying “From the studio that brought you…” And anyway, this film shows a lot more in common with its second cinematic sibling, the Paranormal Activity franchise. Oren Peli is only listed as a producer, but I’m calling bullshit on that. Insidious takes so many pages from the PA playbook that Peli had to have been heavily involved with this thing.
If you’ve seen any of the advertising for this film, you’ll already know that its subject is a boy who’s become the subject of malevolent hauntings, just like Katie and Kristi Featherston. The fact that the hauntings are focused on a person — rather than a house — serve as an elegant answer to the question of why our characters don’t simply move, just as in PA1. Several segments of the film (especially early on) take place at night, showing our characters sleeping with everything normal around them until something goes wrong, presented almost exactly like in both PA movies. Hell, this film and the PA franchise both delight in expressing demonic proximity through similary low-budget shots of objects moving on their own.
Still, there are some ways in which this film is its own creation. For starters, though the movie was clearly made with a hand-held camera in some scenes, it isn’t in mockumentary format. The advantage of this can be summed up in two words: “POV shot” (okay, that’s an acronym and a word, but work with me here). There are several times in this movie when we can see the supernatural phenomena through the characters’ eyes, all of which bring shocks that could never be delivered by an external and objective camera. Furthermore, the stationary camera of PA1 showed us Katie’s nightly somnambulations. When a character tells us that the poor victim of Insidious is walking around at night, it’s somehow just as creepy as if we had seen it ourselves. Additionally, there’s the climax. To put it as spoiler-free as I can, the climax to this film was creepy as all fuck and it could never, ever be done in a mockumentary format.
The film also deserves credit for how its scares were handled. Though there are one or two moments when the film throws jump scares at us without any warning, it was usually much more gradual than that. It was really quite skillful how director James Wan builds up to the true horrors with short series of peculiarities that are gradually more off-putting. It’s skillful because it’s done with the full knowledge that we’re looking for any small warning that a scare is coming up, so the tiny chills are used to put us on our guard. This creates suspense that lasts until the big payoff. Gee, does that sound familiar?
Though this movie does use subtlety to horrifying effect in some ways, more over-the-top methods are also used in ways that are hit-and-miss. For example, this movie does what PA didn’t and actually shows us the monster. I personally think that the film showed us too much of the threat to keep its efficiency as an unknown evil, but your mileage may vary on that. The opening title cards, however, are beyond debate. They are so overtly hellish that it borders on comical. The score for this movie is equally blunt, comprised of nothing but string instruments that screech in cartoonishly evil ways. The music is trying too hard to be scary even when it’s totally silent, if that makes any sense. Nevertheless, I’ll grudgingly admit that the score worked to help make the film terrifying.
Our main characters — the parents of our haunted family — are played by Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, two actors that I like and respect very much. Barbara Hershey also appears as Wilson’s mom, fresh off her wonderful performance in Black Swan, and character actor Lin Shaye does a remarkable job as the film’s resident psychic. Even Leigh Whannell (also the film’s writer) and Angus Sampson play the comic relief with a subtlety that doesn’t make their characters look like complete buffoons. It’s a very fortunate thing that this film has such a strong cast because the dialogue SUCKS.
This isn’t exactly “Tommy Wiseau” bad, but pretty much every line of dialogue is too hackneyed or cliched to sound natural. The acting talent is usually strong enough to salvage it somewhat, but there are clunkers in here that no one could elevate above the level of unintentional hilarity.
There’s no denying that this movie is flawed. The horrible screenplay and the comically overt score are only salvaged through the talent of the actors and the skill of the director. Still, it seems to me that judging a horror movie comes down to one single question: “Is it legitimately scary?” To this, I answer in the affirmative without shame. Yes, it cribs from Paranormal Activity in places, but there’s still enough creativity here to qualify Insidious as its own beast. Plus, if a horror director is going to plagiarize from anyone, better to do so from the creepy and economical PA franchise than the stale and gratuitous Saw films.
I realize that April is an off month for horror, but those looking for a good fright should definitely check this one out.