Review: Insidious, 2011, dir. James Wan

Insidious can be described as “two-thirds of a great film”, which damns it far more than a purely negative critique ever could. Coming from the co-creator of the Saw franchise James Wan’s fourth film is scary in a way that most contemporary horror pictures are not, either by consequence or by design; it’s cinema that hinges on the effect of the unnerving and eschews jump scares with clunky set-ups as well as anything more than a trace amount of viscera. It’s one thing for horror to make its adherents uncomfortable in Louisiana bayous or undiscovered cave systems. It’s quite another to render a person afraid to be in their own home, and Insidious achieves the latter feat with astonishing success before taking a sharp left turn that steers the entire picture off-course in the third-act and deflates all of the mounting dread Wan so diligently builds up beforehand.

Shame, shame. Nothing is more heartbreaking or frustrating as a film that comes so close to excellence as Insidious does; when the film unravels in the last half hour, it’s the celluloid equivalent of getting black flagged at the last lap before roaring down the home stretch for the big finish. Wan can at least take pride in crafting an excellent, smartly made, and frequently very, very scary haunted house story up until Insidious deflates, and maybe to his credit that collapse doesn’t completely invalidate his impressive efforts in making the rest of the film deliciously frightening in the best of ways.

Here, Wan has picked a suburban family to torture; it’s a refreshing change in philosophy from the laundry list of hapless randoms he and Leigh Whannell so delighted in offing through outlandish Rube Goldberg killing devices in the Saw films. Wan couldn’t have chosen a nicer group of folks to inflict his geists upon, either, or a better duo of actors. Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) have moved into their new house with their three children, hoping to open a new chapter in their lives and make a fresh start. Unfortunately, their oldest, Dalton, falls into a sudden and inexplicable coma after an ill-advised journey into the house’s creepy attic; worse, the onset of his condition marks the beginning of incidents which at first could bear some plausible explanation or another, but quickly spiral into paranormal weirdness that threatens to disintegrate Renai’s sanity and the family’s stability.

They do what any sensible people would– they move. But no sooner do they relocate than the activity starts once more, notably in one of the film’s most nail-bitingly discomfiting sequences. Nobody likes a giggling child in a horror movie.

Where Wan succeeds is in playing off of our fears of not so much the unknown but abject wrongness. Little is more frightening than something being amiss when it shouldn’t be– say, a box of sheet music suddenly appear in the attic when no one can recollect how it made its way there, or a door swinging open in the middle of the night despite being locked and bolted shut. Or a figure pacing back and forth outside your window. Insidious, at its best, isn’t one for cheap jump scares that add up to cheap and terrible parlor tricks; when it does indulge in frights of that persuasion, the film earns them rather than lazily unveil them before our very eyes.

But it’s Wan’s first and second act displays of comprehension over what’s terrifies us that ultimately does the film in when he begins taking Insidious into new areas. We learn that the homes Renai and Josh have hopped to and from aren’t haunted– it’s actually Dalton, who happens to be able to astral project and wound up taking the long way around the barn before getting trapped in the spirit world. There’s nothing patently wrong with this idea, or with Wan’s decision to pull back the curtain and take his audience into that phantom realm, called the Further, the horrors of which good old Dad selflessly braves to save his son; it’s risky, maybe, for Wan to switch settings on his audience when good old reality proves to be so effective as a location for haunts and scares, but that’s all. No filmmaking liberties are being taken here.

Yet it’s in the Further that Insidious itself becomes lost, and much of this has to do with the fact that Wan’s concept of limbo is– put as gently as possible– pretty lame. Everything he takes so much care to avoid doing in the earlier sections of the film he ends up employing here; expected jump scares, frantic editing techniques, jarring and constant musical queues to let us know we should be scared (which, frankly, is to say nothing of the almost humorous set and costume design). I’d like to wonder as to what happened, but such inquiries would be exercises in futility as they change nothing. Wan even dares to throw in a last-minute and wholly inexplicable twist for no other reason I can detect than that it’s what he believes the genre demands, even though the particular film he has made does not.

In short, Insidious‘ climactic final half hour is disastrous. It’s clunky, it’s less frightening than even the most low-rent haunted houses that spring  up to cash in on the Halloween season, and it’s just uninspired. If Wan wanted to take a chance and show us the Further, from which Dalton’s demonic nemesis originates, he should have opted to go big rather than busto– in other words, he should have made his plane of tormented souls as epic in scope as possible and gone all-out to truly make the Further the sort of place you wouldn’t want the soul of your nine-year-old to wander in without adult supervision. Alas, swathing your sets in darkness while Patrick Wilson stumbles around with naught but a lamp to light his way does not engender much by way of tension or– even better– the sort of fearful anxiety that a film of this sort thrives on.

I cannot in good conscience deem Insidious a complete waste; apart from random editing and continuity gaffs here and there (which are very much insignificant), this is mostly a technically accomplished film and close to being a well-rounded, quality addition for the horror sub-genre to which it belongs. Watch it at home, in the dark– alone if you’ve got the grapes– and delight in the wealth of creeps and spooks and bumps in the night which it offers so generously. Keep an eye on the time, though. Once that first hour has passed, you’d best be prepared to just accept the inevitable let-down of Insidious‘ last thirty minutes, and try not to imagine an Insidious that retains its ability to scare from start to finish.

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4 thoughts on “Review: Insidious, 2011, dir. James Wan

  1. From what I gather, this seems like a somewhat above-average horror flick. This isn’t the first time I hear about the ending of the movie being a big letdown. I think I will give it a rental for Halloween though 😀

    • I won’t say it’s not a solidly made and effectively scary movie for 2/3rds of its run time, but yeah, the way it finishes out is enormously disappointing. Worth a rental though!

  2. Insidious is like watching what would happen if Dario Argento went into real estate. It’s not your typical shock and torture kind of horror film that most horrors are these days, but I’m not sure if it’s ‘dread’ mood is executed perfectly. Too bad about the ending, too.

    • There are little things– continuity errors– that threaten the feeling of dread, but the movie is mostly successful in sustaining that mood until the end. It’s really that ending thirty minutes that ruins things.

      Love the Dario Argento line.

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