Saturday, April 2, 2011

Horror Seldom Seems So Fun -- Reflections on "Insidious" (2011)

"Honey, are you sure it isn't just the washing machine that's haunted?"

My son, Tommy, loves being scared. It's not the craving of a horror film junkie who pursues every scary film he/she can find. It's the joy of a child, who gets an adrenaline fix everytime he thinks there's a monster under the bed, or every time he sees the picture of a scary face. Tommy loves to hit YouTube and look for movie trailers to Tim Burton movies, enjoying the creep factor of Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, and Sweeney Todd.

When I was Tommy's age, I, too, was a fear junkie. I used to have this hardcover book whose title I can't remember. It was a dusty white volume with silver writing on the side. I can't even remember what was in it except for one page in particular. It had an illustration of a black widow spider dangling from a web. That picture both enthralled and terrified me; I couldn't put my fingers on the page without imagining that spider leaping off it and biting my finger with poison-tipped fangs.

Those memories make me laugh now just as they did then when the book wasn't in my hands. It was fun to be scared. James Wan's Insidious comes from a similar place, I think. I can imagine Wan and his writer, Leigh Whannell, geeking out on some of their favorite creep-out moments in movies and deciding that's the sort of picture they want to make. Insidious is a fun scary movie. It's filled with all the requisite shocks and chills, creaks and things-that-go-bump-in-the-corners-of-the-frame. But it's also made with loving attention to detail, from the casting to the Easter eggs to the low-budget effects that seem to work better than any of the digital ones.

Basics: Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) Lambert move their nuclear family into a creepy old house. At first all is copacetic, but after an accident in the attic their son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), goes into an unexplainable coma that lasts months. During this time Renai begins to hear all sorts of creepy shit, sees twisted faces in windows and shadows, and begins to realize the house is haunted. Unfortunately, Josh is running away from all the problems by hiding at work, but he decides to placate his wife by moving the family to another, more modern home. Everything begins to go berserk when all the noises, faces, and other typical scary film stuff comes back to, er, haunt her. She decides to hire some paranormal investigators and a psychic to figure it all out. They do and realize they've unlocked some seriously crazy bad juju.

It's All in the Details: Every good horror film works hard to get the details right, and Insidious is no exception. The casting is spot-on, with Rose Byrne's beautiful wide eyes perfectly capturing Renai's horror and despair, while Patrick Wilson's haunted everyman demeanor is subtle and convincing. Kudos goes to the casting director for bringing Barbara Hershey on board. Horror fans are very familiar with her classic turn as a ghost-rape-victim in The Entity, and in Insidious she looks and acts like someone carrying a secret that awful on her shoulders.  There are also some fun Easter eggs in the film, too. For example, when we're in Josh's classroom, there's a drawing of the Jigsaw puppet from the Saw movies in the bottom corner of the chalkboard (James Wan directed the first Saw film).

Angry Spirits Aren't the Only Influence in This Film: It's obvious Wan and Whannell have an affection for classic horror films. The Lambert's house is straight out of Amityville Horror, the metaphysical explanations seem powered by spirits from Poltergeist, and the dark humor of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead and Drag Me to Hell is prominent in the movie's second half. There's even a visual theme seemingly lifted from the production design of many of the most popular Hammer horror titles of the 50s and 60s. This love for scary movies never seems tired, and really gives life to a plot that in lesser hands might seem hackneyed.

A Tale of Two Halves: The only criticism I can give Insidious is the film's apparent schizophrenia. The first half is dark, ominous, and really scary. Once the psychic investigators enter the story, the film seems to change gears, and a long expository sequence in the middle removes some of the effective tension by explaining too much too soon. As a result, the second half of the film loses some of the sense of urgency generated in earlier scenes. Fortunately the performances carry the movie from this point, and some well placed scares keep the movie from completely derailing.

Insidious is a reminder of those great, terrible moments as children when we got off on being scared. It is the sort of movie today's kids -- like Tommy -- will sneak around their protective parents backs to watch, only to remember them fondly years later. In other words, horror movies seldom feel so fun.


  1. Yay! I want to see this one but I am terrified; evil things coming after my children is the heart of fear for me! I can't even think of The Exorcist with out doing a weird fast-walk away from perceived evil that hangs around and waits for me to think about that movie. Ha - oh Catholic childhood, thank you.

  2. I totally understand the sentiment. If I hadn't been such a horror junkie before having children, I'd be right there with you, Joan.