Saw creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell have left behind the torture and gore with Insidious, a PG-13 horror movie that uses old school tactics to scare. And for half the movie they do a really tremendous job, building up thick tension and creating great shocks and scares. Then the last part of the movie happens and Insidious goes off the rails into absolute silliness.
Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson are a couple who have moved into a new, huge old house. How they pay for this house is something of a mystery, as Wilson is a teacher and Byrne stays at home and fucks around on the piano. Plus they have three little kids. Truly, the great mystery of Insidious isn’t the source of the eventual haunting but who the hell is paying the mortgage.
Anyway, their new home turns out to be haunted. And just a couple of nights into their stay one of their sons, spurred on by a self-opening door, explores the attic and has a fright and a fall. He seems okay, but the next morning won’t wake up; the doctors don’t know what the heck is going on and he stays in a mysterious coma for months.
As the kid remains comatose, strange phenomena begin manifesting around the house. This is where Insidious hits its peak; director James Wan understands that it’s the small things that are scariest. A sudden knock on the door at 2am is way scarier than a monster, and a quickly glimpsed face through a curtain is downright terrifying. As the haunting ratchets up, Insidious does as well, and I was strapping myself in for a delightful jolting ride.
But then the film makes a hard left turn, one which seemed interesting at first. There’s an Eddie Murphy stand-up routine about how white people in movies always stick around haunted houses, but in Insidious the crew packs up and leaves once the weirdness gets too weird. But the problems follow them to the new location, and may even get more pronounced.
Insidious isn’t a particularly original film; the fingerprints of other movies are all over it, especially Poltergeist (it doesn’t just ‘homage’ movies. There’s a gas mask in the film that is a rip off of Morpheus’ mask from the Sandman comics). The entire film is basically a rejiggered reworking of Poltergeist; instead of Carol Anne disappearing completely the film has the young boy’s ‘astral body’ disappearing, for instance. And there’s a paranormal investigation team who feels like a Mad TV version of Poltergeist (at one point one of them lays his face on the kitchen counter and puts a slab of meat on it, referencing an entire Poltergeist sequence in one fell swoop), as well as a kindly lady psychic called in to contact the other side.
But where Insidious really tries to one up Poltergeist is that it goes inside the closet. The climax of Poltergeist, you’ll recall, has JoBeth Williams heading to the Other Side in search of Carol Anne. We stay inside the house, listening to what’s happening. Insidious opts to go in with the charatcer. This time it’s Patrick Wilson, and the afterlife is called The Further (jeez), and we get to see it all.
Maybe it was best left up to the imagination. Wan’s vision of the afterlife is pretty much a lift from Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride, complete with lots of dry ice smoke and banks of candelabras. None of it works. Where Insidious was tense and scary in the first half it just becomes ultra silly in the second; by the time we get to the lair of the evil demon behind it all - a guy in black body paint who sharpens his Freddy Kreuger rip-off gloves on a whetting stone - the whole affair has gone from spooky to goofy. It isn’t helped by the fact that much of the afterlife - sorry, The Further - is shot in front of black curtains, giving a Mummenschanz feel to the whole thing.
It’s too bad that everything falls apart so dramatically at the end, because Wan’s commitment to using practical effects is not only admirable, it really, really works. The scariest stuff in the first half is achieved mostly by moving people in and out of the frame as the camera moves. It’s so effective that once the movie turns into the Haunted Mansion - complete with pancake powdered people in old timey dress and an old crone in a mirror - there’s no way to not feel let down. I respect that Wan and Whannell were trying something different with ‘The Further’ sequences, but those scenes - along with a completely farcical seance scene - don’t work. Admirable intent only gets you so far in a horror movie.