The interesting thing about Insidious is that it’s very good at being completely unoriginal. In their third collaboration, director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell indulge in just about every conceivable haunted house cliché, and they do it with such style and conviction that I just couldn’t bring myself to blame them for it. This doesn’t mean that I’m recommending the movie; it just means that I understand what they were trying to do, namely make a cardboard homage to such notable films as Poltergeist, The Others, The Haunting, and even recent achievements like Paranormal Activity (incidentally, the film is produced by Orin Peli). At least, I think that’s what they were trying to do. I can’t accept the possibility they went ahead with this project believing it to be groundbreaking.
What I’m certain about is that Insidious is a triumph of tone. Every scene is a powerhouse of suspense. Much of the film is engulfed in darkness, and even in the presence of light, the colors are so muted that they reek of gloominess. There are a lot of sudden noises. Richard Bishara’s score, probably the most forceful of any composed for a recent horror movie, is basically a two-hour symphony of dissonant string glissandos and piercing piano chords. As the film reaches its climax, we enter a spiritual void that would be the envy of any dedicated Halloween decorator; fog blankets the ground, red lights glow eerily, and rooms are lit with dozens of candles, which drip over candelabras in the tradition of the best gothic romances. Hell, they even found a way to make the opening credits scary. How often can you say that about a horror movie?
As for the plot … well, let’s just say don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one. A married couple, Josh and Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne), move into a new house. They have three children – two young boys and an infant daughter. One day, the oldest son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), quite suddenly slips into a coma. The doctors are baffled; they have found no evidence of brain trauma or infection, so medically speaking, there no reason why he shouldn’t be awake. As the months pass, strange things begin happening in the house. Doors open on their own. Objects are tossed onto the floor. Lights go on and off on their own. Renai hears voices over the baby monitor. She occasionally sees figures lurking through the hallways. One of them, a dark figure in a black coat, even tries to attack her. Bloody handprints are found on Dalton’s bedsheets.
Believing the house to be haunted, they move – and, of course, the poltergeist activity follows them. Here enters Josh’s mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), who, for reasons I won’t reveal, understands what Renai is going through. She refers her to a woman named Elise (Lin Shaye), who is both a psychic and an exorcist. She arrives with two assistants (Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell), who I guess were included because the filmmakers thought this movie needed comedy relief. Josh is initially skeptical, but decides to go along for the sake of appeasing his wife. In due time, he will prove to be the film’s most important character. I will not give away anything more at this point, with the exception of one of Elise’s lines, prominently featured in the ad campaign: “It’s not the house that’s haunted. It’s your son.”
I mentioned before a spiritual void. I won’t divulge the specifics of this place, but I will say that it features some amazingly creepy imagery. Consider the appearance of a family, who wear clothing consistent with the first half of the twentieth century, possibly the 1930s or ’40s; their faces, pale and wooden, are frozen into horrific expressions of happiness. Looking at them, I was reminded of Wan and Whannell’s previous film, Dead Silence, which featured a multitude of ventriloquist dummies. We also notice an old crone holding a candle and, most importantly, a demonic being whose red face gives the appearance of fire. If I haven’t made it clear at this point, I relished the experience of looking at this film.
Alas, I didn’t get much out of the story, probably because it has been told a thousand times already. I’ve also grown weary of Wan and Whannell’s tendency to conclude their films with a negative plot twist; I hate to break it to you, guys, but even horror movies can have happy endings. Insidious is no more or less than what it wants to be, and while I can appreciate that in a film, I’m forced to wonder why, with such effort put into atmosphere, no one considered trying just a little harder. Should I have expected more, given Wan and Whannell’s track record? There is not a film they’ve worked on, together or apart, in which I could see flashes of greatness – no, not even Saw. Apparently, some filmmakers are content to stay within their comfort zones, to not flex their muscles and reach for something more. So be it.