The story is a fusion of Poltergeist and Paranormal Activity with a touch of The Exorcist thrown in. A young couple, Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) move into a new home with their three kids. It's a sinister looking house infested with dark corners. It boasts a scary, spacious attic that looks to serve as a place for ghosts to hang out while at the same time providing extra storage room. The initial supernatural disturbances are low key, things mysteriously get moved around or go missing. Shortly after the couple's son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falls into a coma while playing in the attic, things escalate quickly. Soon Renai is being terrorized by ghostly visitors traipsing all over the house. Josh begins to put in a lot of overtime at the school where he works.
Eventually the family moves into a new house. Of course, as the film's tag line indicates, this doesn't help. Borrowing a plot point from Paranormal Activity (produced by the same company) the focus of the haunting is not a place but a person. Comatose Dalton is now a ghost magnet. This does solve the problem of explaining why a family would choose to stay in an obviously haunted house, they don't, but it doesn't matter. The brightly lit and far less creepy second home becomes just as dangerous. This is a clever way for the film makers to have their cake and eat it too. They get to exploit all the traditional trappings of the creaky old spooky house and, just when that starts to wear thin, move in another direction. A third shift in gears is set up after a psychic is brought in to figure out what's up with Dalton.
|"Hypothetically speaking, I mean just in theory of course,|
if we were to move and not take our son with us
the ghosts would leave us alone, right?"
The scariest thing about Insidious is Joseph Bishara's alarming score. This is a film comprised almost entirely of jump scares. A quiet, creepy scene is established, the audience waits, and suddenly a glimpse of a ghost or a demon or whatever is accompanied by a really loud musical cue that makes everyone jump out of their seats. Do this at least once every fifteen minutes. Add on a jump cut and another loud musical cue and you've got yourself a twofer. To its credit, Insidious has the courtesy of showing us actual ghosts or demons or whatevers. It doesn't resort to spring loaded cats and false alarms. Some of the ghosts are a little creepy, the demon looks like he should be weilding a double bladed lightsaber but it doesn't really matter. Using this formula you could achieve the same effect by just giving the audience a glimpse of somebody walking around with a bed sheet over their head as long as the sound was loud enough. It would be more cost effective.
But hey, whatever works. I have no problem with film makers manipulating my emotions with cheap tricks. Please, manipulate me, I want to be entertained. Keep in mind though, there comes a point when the audience begins to see a pattern and the law of diminishing returns kicks in. So the question becomes, what else have you got? What am I actually going to remember a few days after seeing this? Insidious has some great opening credits. A series of quietly unsettling shots give the impression of having just caught something out of the corner of your eye. These are in direct contrast to the jump scares, something off centre in the shot not drawing attention to itself, but very unnerving when spotted. There is a scene set in the bright kitchen of the family's second home where Renai walks right past what I could have sworn was a small figure in a cap standing motionless with its back to the camera. The seance scene is interesting. The gas mask contraption that the psychic wears is bizarre in a fun way. There is a good use of a Tiny Tim song. That pretty much covers it.
The third direction the film takes is exploring an astral projection angle. Dalton is able to leave his body and wander the astral plain but his still living body becomes prime real estate for ghosts and demons looking to possess it. We also discover that Josh had the same talent when he was a child but some bad experiences caused him to suppress the memory. Now Josh is going to have to journey into the astral plain to bring back his son before a demon steals his body. The film does not succeed in mining any emotional drama out of this father and son dynamic, which is a shame because it might have been an effective finale. A similar development in Poltergeist, with the mother traveling into the spirit world to rescue her daughter held more dramatic impact. To make things worse, the astral plane is disappointing. It's a slightly distorted version of things that we've already seen. By this point the film has edged way passed the point of being silly so it's a shame that they couldn't go for broke here. I was hoping that the astral plane would have looked something designed by Steve Ditko but really the point is it should have been visually stunning. Maybe if it had a bigger budget.
Insidious will probably scare you if you aren't too jaded about horror films and turn the sound up loud. It does become sillier as it progresses and has little in the way of offering something that you haven't seen before. I can't see this holding upon repeat viewings but that goes for most horror films (most films, really). It does at least employ its small bag of tricks somewhat effectively. I would recommend Paranormal Activity over Insidious however. It uses the same tools to achieve the same effect but is a much leaner, comparatively elegant film.