For a moment there where it seemed that director James Wan wasn’t going to live up to the overwhelming promise of his debut movie, Saw. With that single, low budget, superlative chunk of high concept torture porn Wan and his writing partner Leigh Wannell marked themselves as major talents to look out for but in the years since nothing they did seemed to match the power of a couple of dickheads chained in a toilet.
Now of course, Wan is a major Hollywood talent with the connected universe of The Conjuring and the massive scaled Aquaman and Fast And Furious 8 under his belt but the connecting tissue that made it all possible is Insidious.
Josh and Renai, a painfully white couple, has moved into a new house with their three young children but one day, after a seemingly innocuous fall in the attic, Dalton, their eldest child slips into a mystery coma. Doctors are predictably baffled and 3 months pass but then an over-stressed Renai starts seeing strange visions of people round the house and becomes obsessed with the idea that the house is haunted. So far, so textbook; but then Josh relents and in a move virtually unheard of in the haunted house genre the family actually move house. Movie over, right? Wrong. The strange apparitions seemingly follow them to their new abode and greater action has to be taken with the introduction of Elise Rainier and her cohorts; a trio of paranormal investigators who sport interesting, homemade equipment who manage to figure out what exactly is going on. It seems that it’s not the houses that are haunted, but Dalton, their son IS and a malevolent, Darth Maul faced demon has set it’s sights on possessing their son thanks to his latent ability to astral project.
Can the desperate family, even with the help of Elise, manage to bring their son back from the nether worlds beyond before this demon takes up valuable real estate in his soul and what is the secret Josh has that could be the key to unlocking the whole ordeal?
While Insidious could hardly be described as an original concept (in fact you could be forgiven for claiming it’s downright derivative), what ultimately wins you over is not the story Wan and Wannell are telling but the style in which they are telling it. They basically take the framework of Tobe Hooper’s classic Poltergeist, strips all the Spielberg out of it and twists it into something that feels fresh, exciting and a damn sight better Poltergeist remake than the actual Poltergeist remake.
Virtually everything the film tackles is a new spin on an old concept, with the paranormal investigators (one of whom is played by Whannell himself) are a quirky, nebbish double act while Elise (a wonderfully up beat character played by the ubiquitous Lin Shaye) is a warm, soothing presence not a million miles away from Zelda Rubinstien’s diminutive and memorable Poltergeist character.
Even their equipment is a weird steampunk, homemade ghost monitoring tech that wouldn’t look out of place on Jigsaw’s work bench and are made from stuff like those 3D Reel Viewers you had as a child.
Obviously, as this is a movie made in modern times, there are a fair few references to such films that flirt with the supernatural such as The Exorcist and even the casting is savvy with the appearance of Barbara Hershey who had her own misadventures with the spirit world back in the 80’s with The Entity.
Wan’s use of the camera wins here with odd slow zooms, weird camera angles and seemingly careless tracking shots that not only stubbonly keep you from feeling at ease even when nothing is happening but make it feel like you yourself are a disparate spirit, drifting around the place like a dead voyeur with nothing else better to do than to spy on unsuspecting caucasians.
By the second half, Wan goes all out on the weirdness, throwing an all expenses paid trip to the supernatural nether world which plays like a fingernail shredding walk-through of a survival horror video game and hints of boundless ethereal beings lurking unseen in the shadows Lovecraft-style. It’s a thrillingly high concept – low tech look at the afterlife but every now and then it’s aim is further than it’s reach and things start to wobble dangerously into the realms of hokey but Wan keeps things admirably steady.
Maybe too steady, however, are the main characters, who come across as incredibly vanilla to be truly interesting despite being played by such stalwarts as Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne; but the performances are solid enough to carry them through.
Legitimately well crafted scares, however, more than win the day – a scene set in broad daylight with no creepy music whatsoever may very well contain one of the greatest jump scares of the decade as the Red Faced Demon (effectively and sparingly used) suddenly appears behind someone and effectively gives an entire generation a fucking heart attack.
Updating the ghost movie with an awesomely savvy coat of paint, Wan has finally secured his place in the horror hall of fame by pulling the same trick he did with the psycho-killer flick and carrying it through with style to spare, without resorting to the first-person predictability that eventually marred the Paranormal Activity franchise.
A energetic and legitimate resurrection of a sub-genre dulled by too much of the same old thing, Insidious excels in scares and ideas to end up as being something appropriately – and fittingly – haunting.