James Wan’s Saw was an effective little movie, but one which many horror fans agree did more damage than good, issuing in the ‘torture porn’ genre which plagued cinema for the early 2000s. But despite this, Wan is a man who knows his stuff, and his next big movie – Insidious – stands as one of the more effective horror films of the last few years. It’s not a perfect film, but when it works, it really scares, and the movie possess an old school approach which should be praised. Wan is set to continue his run of supernatural run of films with The Conjuring, out next month, and Insidious 2 in the autumn, steadily cementing himself as a horror director to watch out for. Insidious focuses on a family, lead by parents Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne), who begin to experience supernatural phenomena in their home. The events begin when their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) slips into a mysterious, medically unexplainable coma, an event which triggers the appearance of demons and ghosts which begin to haunt the family. Josh’s mother Lorraine (horror stalwart Barbara Hershey), knowing more than she lets on, brings in the help of psychic Elise (Lin Shaye) to get the bottom of the spooky goings-on. The family battle to save Dalton from the forces lurking in the dark. Right from the start, it’s clear that Insidious is going to be intense. The opening titles are atmospheric, with a brilliant haunting score which falls into a crashing crescendo as the film’s name glares onto screen. Joseph Bishara’s music throughout the movie is fantastic, old-school in style, loud and clanging with piercing strings – it’s one of the best and most effective horror scores of recent memory, with the soundtrack working to keep the audience on edge. The movie throughout is very atmospheric, with a great sense of dread, and nothing in the movie feels safe. In the cinema, with sound at full blast, Insidious is an experience, visceral and terrifying at times. As with the best horror, the film begins small and slowly escalates, with the scares becoming bolder as the film progresses. Wan clearly loves horror movies and the film works like a homage to great ghost classics of the past – The Shining, The Amityville Horror, and Poltergeist – borrowing elements from those movies and reworking them into his film. Like those movies, the horrors here are mainly unseen and there’s very little blood – Insidiousisn’t subtle, but its very effective in terms of mood and dread and does a lot without showing much. What’s so great about Insidious is that it belongs to an older style of horror film-making – built on atmosphere, style and tone; it’s a shame they don’t make many movies like this anymore. Compared with the damp Mama, another recent scary movie which caused a buzz despite not being actually scary (or good) Insidious is something of a master work, and it’ll be nice to see what Wan does in future. He clearly knows scary.The film spins other horror clichés too, and there’s a sense throughout that Wan is trying to show standard tropes in a different light. Take for example, the seance scene. Audiences have seen thousands of such scenes, but this one comes with the bizarre set up of the psychic wearing a gas-mask, and tense, flashing photography lights which make the audience jump throughout. It’s a typical scene, made original by the presentation. There’s also the refreshing moment where the characters, feeling that their home is haunted, actually move out – a rarity in these kind of movies, but a move which here, doesn’t actually help. The film plays into Paranormal Activity‘s frightening notion of people being haunted as opposed to places which really works for the material.Whilst the haunted house plot isn’t original, the effectiveness of Insidious comes entirely from the execution – James Wan knows how to put a scare together, and the film contains some of the best jump moments of recent times. Wan understands the conventions of horror set up and so subverts them constantly – the dream-scene, which has been discussed before in My Top Ten Scariest Movie Moments – is deeply unsettling, possessing a haunting atmosphere with very eerie dialogue and a very threatening, barely glimpsed monster. We’re allowed to soak in the scene and become drawn into it, which means that the jump which follows is fantastic. Other great examples include the babies cot scare and the walking man moment. The cot is a brilliantly constructed, subversive scare – Rose Byrne walks into a room and there’s a tremendous music sting, but unlike most horror movies, the camera doesn’t jump cut forward, we remain in long-shot. It takes the audience a second to register the man stood behind the babies cot, and that’s when the jump comes, post music sting. It’s one of the smartest scares on film.The walking man scene works by twisting standard genre conventions too – we see a man walking outside a window, and suddenly, he’s walking inside the room. That’s the jump. But when Byrne screams and looks away however, the man doesn’t vanish as he would in most horror movies, he proceeds to attack her. There’s a raw physicality to that and it’s so unexpected; audiences tend to feel ‘safe’ once the jump has occurred and it’s refreshing that Insidious doesn’t let up, pushing down the walls that audiences expect. The film is full of moments like this, and the score helps tremendously throughout. The ghosts too, in a throwback to The Shining, are solid and threatening, which is really refreshing, and the demon antagonist is one of the scariest horror monsters in recent memory. Wan is effective when using this demon, letting us see only glimpses of it in dreams and pictures, and lets the creature stew in the audiences mind before bringing it out at the climax.The first half of Insidious is a very intense movie with a great sense of dread. It does begin to fall apart as it progresses, and like most horror movies, falters when it begins to explain itself. The Shining was so scary because it kept its explanations vague – when Insidious begins to explain itself it becomes a little bit too clear and loses its edge. The tone of the movie changes too, from creepy haunted house horror to all-out intense ghost train ride, with the final act working in a very similar vein to Poltergeist. It’s not an effective move, but only because the first half is so brilliant. The final isn’t bad – it’s a lot of fun and well put together – it just seems to have stepped in from a different movie. There are also some awkward attempts at comic relief with Elise’s crew which really weren’t needed. It’s a shame as these moments do takeaway from what could have been a horror masterpiece.The cast are strong throughout, with Byrne and Wilson the likeable centre of the movie. They feel like real people, and they seem to care about one another, which makes them sympathetic and engaging. They make up the heart of the movie, and Wan is wise to ship the kids out of the picture for most of the running time. There’s also very little of the standard non-believing which drags out these kinds of movies, and we learn that Josh’s denial of the situation stems from something far scarier. Hershey is endearing as the mother and gets some great lines, but it’s Shaye who really steals the show as a the sweet old woman psychic. It’s an archetypal role but she plays it well, and like the rest of Insidious, the performance works on execution not originality. Composer Bishara plays the monstrous demon, a performance built on unnatural movement, something like a ballet dancer crossed with a spider. Insidious has so many fantastic elements to it, and is a sure treat for horror fans. It’s a really a movie made for people who love the genre, and one which deserves praise for the sheer strength of its execution. In a decade of tired, limp scary movies, it’s nice to see one this well put together. James Wan is certainly one to watch for in future and here’s hoping the second movie will live up the hype.
Quick Update – I’ve yet to see Insidious 2, but word on the street declares it’s absolutely awful. Ah well.