Produced on a budget of under two million dollars, James Wan's Insidious is a horror film that nicely lives up to its title. The word "insidious" is defined as "proceeding in a gradual way but with harmful outcomes," or, simply, "crafty" and "treacherous."
Particularly, this horror film's "stealth" villain is one who clearly -- and malevolently -- boasts a plan to achieve a wicked goal. In making the movie's form echo its content, Wan and writer Whannell work patiently and assiduously, though with abundant twists and turns in the mix, to generate an aura of escalating terror and suspense.
Insidious does so, in large part, without benefit of expensive special effects, instead opting for a patient, slow-build approach. Insidious then climbs to a highly disturbing climax -- and as much as I felt that the movie's slavish copying of the Poltergeist aesthetic was distracting -- Wan's film nonetheless achieved its "insidious" goal: it successfully troubled my mind, and even my slumber. The night I watched this motion picture, I felt deeply unsettled and anxious. Despite the life force it clearly appropriates from Hooper's classic supernatural thriller, Insidious still terrifies.
Books fall off the bookshelf of their own volition, and at night strange noises waken the family. Then, young Dalton (Ty Simpkins) is injured in the attic and falls into an inexplicable coma.
His concerned parents, Renai (Rose Byrne) and Josh (Patrick Wilson) struggle to deal with this tragedy, but the night terrors don't cease. Fearing the home is haunted, the family moves to another home...only to see the strange incidents resume.
Then, one day, Josh's mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) shows up and reveals that she knows the reasons behind Dalton's coma and also the strange phenomena. She brings in a parapsychologist, Elise (Lin Shaye) who reveals that Dalton and Josh are both -- unwittingly -- accomplished "travelers." In other words, during sleep hey can "astral project" out of their bodies.
That's precisely what has happened to Dalton. He has trespassed into "the Further," a world beyond our own and populated by the tortured souls of the dead. And a dark figure there -- one who once sought to control Josh -- now seeks to control Dalton, and to appropriate his body.
Intriguingly -- and perhaps as a reflection of the hard times the middle class is now facing in America -- there's no "honeymoon" period here in the new house. In most haunted house films, there's an early period of "euphoria" for the tenants in the new home before the terror begins.
Here, scenes of domestic pandemonium occur virtually immediately, inter-cut with scenes of growing supernatural pandemonium. The impression is of a family overcome from all sides. Early on Renai complains to Josh about their marriage/life and says "I just want things to be different in this house," suggesting a troubled history. "I'm scared nothing is going to change," she admits.
Again, this set-up is undercut when we learn that he is not possessed at all...simply gone to "The Further." And it is here, in this final reckoning that the Insidiou, disappoints by almost mindlessly, grieviously aping every aspect of the Poltergeist screenplay.
Again, I can't be too blunt about this aspect of the film. If you go back and watch the Lesh scene in Poltergeist and then the Elise scene in Insidious, you'll see for yourself just how uncomfortably close these moments truly are.
Despite such reflexive touches, one still wishes Insidious could have found a way to dramatize its tale without so overtly aping Poltergeist's last act.
Well, for one thing, the depiction of "The Further" is very well-done, and deeply unsettling. There, lost souls wander the firmament and relive distorted, surreal "memories" of their lives. The characters you see dwelling in "The Further" are eminently creepy and disturbing. Furthermore, the film's stealth villain, an Old Crone, is deeply, monstrously frightening. The film builds to a terrifying crescendo as the specifics of her "plan" fall into place, one rung at a time, and we detect how easily the Lamberts have been led astray.
James Wan is well-known to genre fans as the director of Saw (2004), which sent horror films off in a particular direction that is often condemned as "torture porn." Much has been made of the fact that Insidious is something of a corrective, relying on suspense rather than gore to horrify audiences. I personally don't object to the Saw films -- any more than I disdain the slasher films of the 1980s -- but it's true that Insidious rewards patience and generates an atmosphere of authentic terror.
As much as my intellect had some deep reservations about the film, particularly the deeply nihilistic ending, my senses responded to Insidious precisely as the director wished. I was deeply unsettled, and actually had trouble sleeping at night. That's a nice sweet spot for any horror film to occupy.
Perhaps I felt so unsettled because the film's final twist -- so dark and hopeless -- mirrors, again, the feelings of many of Americans about the future right now. What malevolent forces are working against us while we're occupied trying to get the kids to school safely, or focusing on our careers?
While appropriating clearly and brazenly Poltergeist's essence, Insidious also ably and relentlessly charts this post-Great Recession Zeitgeist.