When I first saw the previews for Insidious, I thought, “Now that looks like a creepy movie!” Then I saw the phrase, “From the makers of Saw and Paranormal Activity,” and I was somewhat ambivalent. Would it be a sadistic grossfest, or would it be a nail-biting, tense thriller? I’m happy to say Insidious is more Paranormal than Saw. Directed by James Wan and written by Leigh Whannell—the two men who brought Jigsaw to life but then killed him, sort of—Insidious is a successful throwback to some of the classics of the horror genre.
As with any haunted house tale that we’ve already seen (The Shining, The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, and so on), we meet a family moving into their new house. Sure enough, the house comes equipped with lots of creaky doors, floors, and an attic that would convince me to have the realtor brick it off before I moved in. By the end of the first couple days, things have already started moving around on their own, doors open by themselves, and strange whispers are heard. I know—you’re already saying, “I’ve seen this same thing happen in I-don’t-know-how-many movies.”
You would, of course, be right. One of the great touches of Insidious is that it flirts dangerously with becoming cliché, and yet, through brilliant camera work, mysterious atmosphere, and clever misdirection, it manages to draw us into the story with an increasing level of dread. Many shots are left with just enough space in the periphery to build tension. Something’s going to appear, right? Maybe? I frequently felt myself sinking lower in my chair.
Tragedy strikes the family when Dalton, one of the young boys, falls on his head and goes into a coma that lasts for months. Mom, a stay-at-home songwriter, looks after Dalton and the baby during the day and soon begins to sense an evil presence within the house. Dalton’s brother makes a statement one night that made my skin crawl, and Dad seems to prefer working late nights at school over going home. Meanwhile, where is Dalton, and what’s in his room with him?
To tell you any more would be a crime. What I can say, unfortunately, is that the second act takes a wrong turn. Have you ever played that old campfire game where one person begins a story and passes it off to the next person? In this case, that next person wasn’t as imaginative as the first guy. One thing that made both Paranormal Activity films so successful was the idea that the unknown is always scarier. What we can’t see or define is a hundred times more terrifying than a drawn-out textbook explanation.
Despite some of the distractions that derail the story, Insidious is an extremely effective film with some of the most frightening scenes I’ve ever witnessed. The mood is augmented by a jarring soundtrack that owes a lot to Krzysztof Penderecki (whose music featured heavily in The Exorcist and The Shining), and that’s not a bad thing. Another strength of this film is that I found myself actually caring about the characters rather than berating them for their blandness or stupid decisions.
The real test of a good scary movie, though, is how well it stays with you. After seeing The Ring, I didn’t turn my TV off for three days. The night after seeing Insidious, while Jake and Rachael slept soundly, I lay there in the dark, hoping for sleep to come so I wouldn’t hear the whisperings coming from the closet or see the dark silhouette standing in the doorway.