Dir:- James Wan

Starr:- Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell

The sheer volume of awful Jigsaw-obsessed sequels may well have distorted the relative merits of the original Saw movie in my imagination. Leigh Whannell and James Wan’s first movie together, wasn’t the technically proficient opening chapter in a hugely successful horror franchise, but rather the low-budget Australian horror Stygian, from which the core plot of Insidious is derived. Wan and Whannell as a writing/directing team (in Stygian Whannell was just an actor) have now come up with three horror movies that place a major emphasis upon the meticulously masked face (be it a doll’s head, a papier-mache mask, or a painted visage). With Insidious the movie actually opens up on a rather chilling and highly effective bedroom prelude, in which a young child is shown to be watched over by a rather hideous ghost-like figure. Wan and Whannell clearly aren’t one-trick ponies and for the first hour of this movie they show themselves to be potential modern masters of the tense horror narrative.

Aside from a particularly strong cast the most impressive aspect of Insidious is to do with Wan’s marshalling of his cinematographers Brewer and Leonetti. The film is yet another example of the technical ingenuity of the horror genre, as Wan and his cameramen create a wholly new way of seeing the horror shot, which relies predominantly upon decentering the focus of the lens in almost every non-close-up shot. Not only is each shot decentered, but Wan, Brewer and Leonetti then utilise a focal lens that appears to balance every aspect of the frame, so that no one detail is given greater weight than an other. This subtle transformation of visual space is actually very important as it allows Wan to populate not just the periphery of the shot with creepy visuals, but also the parts of the shot that would normally be in plain view and therefore usually ineffective and wasteful sites of suggestive and subtle horror. The extent to which this visual effect works can be felt in the inescapable sense, throughout the film, that there is stuff going on underneath the shot that is somehow eluding, and thus tantalisingly taunting, the audience.

The narrative is straight out of classic haunted house territory, with heavy references to recent Spanish-helmed efforts like The Orphanage and The Others. The central technical conceit, discussed above, is similar to that deployed by Robert Wise in the classic spine-tingler The Haunting, whilst the garishly baroque tone set by the hellishly red titles is reminiscent of Hammer Horror flicks from the late sixties. Finally, through the casting of Barbara Hershey in the supporting role of Patrick Wilson’s mother, the movie most obviously draws parallels with the 1982 demon-rape adaptation The Entity (even making an explicit appeal to that movie in the family chronology on display here). Despite however many Amityville’s there is still something inherently frightening about haunted houses and Wan and Whannell’s script takes the tried and tested approach of focusing most of the fear in the story upon the young children within the family. Patrick Wilson and the excellent Rose Byrne play Josh and Renai Lambert, who have just moved in to a new home at the start of the movie, an imposing tri-gabled structure that stops just short of Psycho and Amityville cliché. The couple have two young sons Dalton and Foster, as well as a baby daughter. Of the two boys Dalton appears the more adventurous and strong-willed, so it comes as no surprise when he ventures up into the attic space at the top of the house and has an accident that ends up putting him in a coma. With their son needing constant round-the-clock attention Josh and Renai become increasingly aware that something in the house clearly has a malevolent agenda that involves Dalton in some way.

The whole of the first half of the film is an intense exercise in steadily escalating dread. Rose Byrne’s Renai is a musician and is thus frequently at home when odd things begin to happen. First of all her box of music scores vanishes, only to reappear in the attic. Then the baby monitor begins to pick up the kind of whispering conversations that are never a good thing in horror movies. Most impressively Byrne’s character begins to be directly visited by strange interlopers, first of all a woman at a window, then a young giggling kid who seems to want to play hide and seek and finally a menacing male figure who seems to wish her harm. Unlike with other films of this ilk, the family don’t put up with the strange goings-on in their new home, but instead move back into the family property they stayed in prior to the big move.

One of the thoughts that surfaced in my mind whilst watching these middle sections of Insidious was just how expressive of anxiety the haunted house movie may well be. Nowadays one of the biggest financial commitments most families will make is to own their own property. As a result a significant pressure is put upon a couple to make the right choice of home, of neighbourhood, of district, in which to raise their children. If the bricks and mortar that you have sunk your savings into suddenly become the sight of horrific goings-on then it places an impossible burden upon the family unit, as most people can’t simply walk away from a financial loss of that magnitude. Thus the haunted house in some ways becomes a reflection, an outward manifestation, of all the doubts and tensions a couple might have over property ownership.

All the hard work expended on constructing a simply terrifying atmosphere is somewhat undone by the arrival on the scene of Lin Shaye’s mystic Elise Rainier (along with her Ghostbusters duo, one of whom is played by Whannell himself). In every good haunted house movie there comes a point where the director has to choose whether to reveal the bogeyman at the heart of the horror, or whether to stick with suggestions and allusions. Insidious actually has some genuinely scary imagery at its core, which deserves a little flaunting (particularly the demonic figure in full flow that looks a little like the beast from Jeepers Creepers crossed with Darth Maul), however the final thirty minutes of the film sees Wan and Whannell overplay their hand somewhat, whilst resorting to moments of parody that wouldn’t seem out-of-place on Most Haunted.

As in Stygian, the movie is in essence about two conflicting plains of reality, and how certain people can cross from one to the other. Such an idea is immensely appealing when you have a whole array of demons lined up on the other side of the divide ready to burst through. However, this underworld can also detract from the real strengths of the movie and it is notable that whereas the creepy presences of the early part of the film had been made all the more effective by not being sign-posted in the traditional horror score/POV shot manner, at the conclusion of the movie the demonic presences clearly adhere to this formula and are all the worse for it. By the time Lin Shaye wanders around in the gas mask from My Bloody Valentine, whilst Whannell and Angus Sampson (as the two ghost hunting assistants) get tossed around like human skittles, Insidious has drifted far away from the subtle powers of its title. It’s a great shame, as for long periods this is a superb horror film and even in the OTT light show at its climax there are moments of quite unique terror, such as the manic expressions on the ‘further’ family’s faces, or the almost entirely black wanderings Josh has to go on to try to find Dalton (never has darkness felt quite so oppressive and menacing). Insidious confirms that Wan and Whannell are technically proficient horror-film auteurs, who with a little more discipline may well be capable of the 21st century’s first truly frightening American horror movie, we horror enthusiasts can but hope.

NOTE:- I did enjoy the little chalk image of Jigsaw scrawled upon Josh’s blackboard in the classroom sequence.