Review: Insidious

All film reviews contain SPOILERS. This review was originally published as ‘Insidious is Insidious’, on the University of Stirling’s Gothic Imagination blog, 15 June 2011.

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Many have come to proclaim the ‘death’ or ‘living-dead’ status of American horror cinema in recent years.  Mark Gatiss, in his recent History of Horror, pronounced the time of death as being sometime shortly after the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween, when ‘video nasties’ and a string of popular ‘slasher’ franchises helped establish a pronounced emphasis on gore that, in the years that followed, became increasingly mainstream, with films like Saw and Hostel turning a very healthy profit at the box office.  It’s a trend that’s had little to offer this squeamish sap, who prefers the kind of scary movie that could fall under the broad banner of ‘psychological horror,’ preferably something on DVD, watched in the safety and comfort of his own home.  But recently I decided to abandon my comfort-zone to attend a late-night screening of James Wan’s Insidious as it concluded its theatrical run, and which had been sold to me as a creepy, bloodless ‘psychological’ ghost film.  I didn’t expect it to have such a visceral impact…

Despite the highly-publicised ‘twist’ (which is also the tagline: ‘It’s Not the House That’s Haunted’), Insidious is a ‘haunted house’ movie in the grand tradition of The Amityville HorrorThe Shining and Poltergeist (not forgetting Paranormal Activity, by the same producers).  That said, the ‘demonic possession’ angle is not as straightforward as the film poster would seem to imply; the little boy has, in the film, more in common with the plight of Carol-Ann in Poltergeist than with The Omen’s Damien.  Another thing that struck me was the film’s old-fashioned title card, with nails-down-the-blackboard musical accompaniment, since it didn’t feature the advertised logo.  Now I wonder if the film was deliberately marketed to mislead the audience, softening them up and leaving them unprepared for what they get.  In any case, it’s best to go into the film with little to no expectations; that way viewers can enjoy Insidious for what it is.  Confident, self-assured, and wickedly playful, it’s a film that recycles a raft of clichés yet somehow manages to make the entire package feel ‘new,’ or at least, both familiar and unfamiliar.

Much of the film’s appeal lies in its cold, clinical surface, so drained of colour that even the ‘cosy’ domestic scenes fail to dissipate the tension held throughout.  And when the film suddenly switches to a pink/red filter for the first time, or uses sudden, stabbing instances of colour…  Well let’s just say I was lucky I didn’t spill my popcorn.  Boasting some wonderful corner-of-the-eye moments, the film also contains some thrilling vaguenesses and ambiguities that I just don’t associate with American horror cinema.  See the scene with the baby monitor, or the moment when medium Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye, in what would’ve been Zelda Rubinstein’s role, if this were Poltergeist) describes the thing on the ceiling: it’s hard to make out what’s being said, with only a few lurid fragments discernible in all the mumbling.  But it’s these partial disclosures that allow the viewer’s imagination to run into over-time, ‘filling in the gaps.’  Very well done!

The cast?  A little uneven in places, but I was struck by how natural much of their body language seemed.  It’s small things like that which help the film to look and feel more ‘real’ than the post-Scream parade of glossy ‘slashers’ we’ve had to put up with.  Though the film is still more obviously fake than, say, Paranormal Activity or The Blair Witch Project, there’s a shakiness to the camera that, as in Halloween, makes it feel as if these characters are being stalked.  Which, I suppose, they are…

A common complaint regarding the film’s second-half is that it ‘explains’ too much, before veering off into fantasy.  But if the concept of ‘the Further’ – supposed to be a Limbo-like realm of the dead that can be (and to risk a spoiler, is) visited through astral projection – sounds a bit ‘cheesy’ and pretentious, just blame ageing New Ager Elise for the terms being used to describe the phenomena.  Whilst she and her assistants may have a better idea of what they’re dealing with than the family, their ‘expertise’ is nothing more than years of accumulated experience in trial-and-error.  They have plenty of explanations, but none of these adequately explain the realm and its tenants (some of whom are ghosts, others demons).  So if hearing it be called ‘the Further’ should cause one to wince, think of it instead as a phantasmagoria, as the world’s creepiest ‘haunted house’ theme park attraction, since it’s with the ghoulish grotesques encountered therein that the film excels.  With their eye-boggling stares, protruding tongues and mocking grins, they convey a sense of the most malign mischief…  Maybe there will come a day when I can look back on this film and laugh alongside the ‘Lipstick-Face Demon,’ but this time round, he and his friends had me scared witless.

My only complaint?  A couple of jarring CGI effects.  That kind of artifice never looks good, especially in a low-budget horror film already more reliant on make-up, shadows and what is only partially glimpsed when creating its consistently effective ‘shocking,’ ‘stabbing’ jump-scares.  Most American horror films I’ve seen in the last decade have tended to be rather frivolous in their dispensation of jump-scares; most scarcely register, and barely merit a yawn.  But this film…  This film gets it right.  It may seem ‘cheesy’ and ‘silly’ in places (‘leeeeeave this vessel!’).  But it has everything a person attending a late night screening of a horror film could possibly want.  And it may just sow a few lurid images into your nightmares.  It did mine!

Proving the old adage that it’s not what you do but how you do it, Insidious gives the corpse of the American horror film a few invigorating jolts.  By the end of it I had my head in my hands, not out of a sense of frustration or despair, but because my nerves were in shreds.  Whilst admitting that it doesn’t herald the grand rebirth of American horror cinema, any film that can so ably demonstrate that, in the right hands, the old stuff still works, deserves to be applauded.

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