Horror Revisited: Insidious (2011) Movie Review

I doubt that when they created Saw, James Wann and Leigh Whannell ever thought that the moderately budgeted film would spawn several sequels for several Halloween's running. Now, I don't like Saw and I don't pretend to, I have never been into gory stuff to make things scary and the whole idea of Saw, people chopping themselves and others up to escape macabre games makes me feel sick to my stomach, I loved Insidious as it went back to basics.

Wann and Whannell have produced, for the critics, products which have yielded mixed reviews. Yet, for Insidious they seemed to go back to what made horror great in the first place. It is evident throughout the movie, they had taken time to explore those brilliant movies like, The Exorcist and Poltergeist when coming up with the concept for Insidious while giving it some nice new twists and turns. Add to that, the film being produced by Paranormal Activity creator, Oren Peli and Insidious is off to a great start.

What I personally found good is that the film took those old horror tropes, like a family moving into a new house to start their suburban life only to find their house is the hunting grounds for all manner of demonic entities. Of course, it isn't as simple as that, it isn't the house that is haunted but one of the sons, Dalton, is in the centre of a plot from a rather disturbing red faced demon. What this film also does very successfully is sets up the mythology for potentially numerous sequels and to this date, the film has spawned another two.

The film focuses around John and Renai, played by Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne who have no idea that their son has the ability to travel to another dimension in his dreams called The Further. But one night, after Dalton has a nasty accident in the new home's attic, Dalton goes to sleep only not to wake up again the next morning. They believe the problem to be a bump on the head that Dalton receives when he fell off the ladder in the attic. In reality, or rather - his dreams, Dalton's astral form has strayed too far from his earthly body and has fallen into the clutches of a demon who wants to use his body to walk amongst the living again. After Dalton is released from the hospital, the boy, who is still comatose is looked after at home, but his mother, Renai, quickly notices things that are odd. There are voices coming from her youngest, Kali's, baby monitor that sound like someone talking to her, people walk outside her bedroom window at night, her other son, Parker doesn't like it when he sees who he assumes is Dalton, walking around at night and then Renai finds a bloody hand print on one of Dalton's sheets. Things get so bad that John and Renai move hoping that the strange activity will stop. But when the haunting continues to get steadily worse, they have no choice to call for help from psychic, Elise, played by Lin Shaye and her two bungling assistants, Tucker and Specs, played by Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell, to cast out the demons.

Both Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne do a terrific job in their roles, Byrne particularly gets a lot to do and it is a wonder how Renai, following the events here and in the sequel, Chapter 2, managed to stay sane. She is terrific and really gets across to the audience just how scary and horrifying the events around her are. She feels like a real person and makes them film feel like we are a fly on the wall, like we are there with her, feeling her terror. Wilson is terrific too, playing the strong hero type and the revelation that his character, John, had the same ability as his son as a youngster is not one you will see coming on your initial viewing. John's Mother, played by Barbara Hershey is also a nice little character, who gets a lot more to do in the second movie. But here she is the character who bridges the past with the present when she shows John some disturbing childhood photographs she took of him. In each image is a woman in black, who gradually gets closer until, in the last photo, she is within touching distance. Lin Shaye is instantly likable as Elise and you won't see what happens to her at the end coming. Also likable are her two assistants who argue like little children but wouldn't be without each other. Specs is adorably nerdy, making a passing comment about a Star Trek action figure he finds which should have been kept in it's packaging and Tucker treats his homemade paranormal hunting equipment like his children. They are both hilarious when they have scenes together with both actors bouncing off each other perfectly.

And then of course, there is the demon. The Red Faced Demon while scary and disturbing in his appearance looks like the creators went no further than exploring the tradition representations of the Devil. His face is gloriously scary and the first glimpse of him behind Patrick Wilson will be an instant shock. I have no doubt in my mind it will go down as one of the scariest movie moments in the history of horror movies. It is unfortunate then, that the illusion of this demon being scary goes south when he see his feet, well, his hooves. Even when they are stamping across his hellish dimension after Wilson who is trying to save his son, they look silly. And no stomping sound effects or camera shaking will help to sell the illusion that they are supposed to be convincing. I'm not saying that if you were actually in this dimension they wouldn't be convincing, hell, I would be running as fast as my feet could carry me but they don't look too good on screen. Things go even further south when the demon is chasing Dalton, who is trying to get back to his earthly body. The producers seemed to settle for the demon climbing across a wall. While it is slightly disturbing, I guess, the red face makes him look like Spiderman, with the spider-like crawling he is doing. It doesn't do any favours I'm afraid.

Easily the best and most disturbing of the ghosts are those we also encounter along the way. For me, the ones that stick out is the little boy that Renai encounters in their new house who literally blends into the background before jumping out and dancing to the creepy song, Tiptoe Through The Tulips. The other is the woman in black, who has haunted John since he was a boy. Not much is done with her here, though she is the main villain in the second movie as well as making appearances in the third.

The one group of demons who, for me, let the side down are those ghosts who appear in The Further's representation of John and Renai's old house. While the fifties husband and daughter do a great job at sitting perfectly still, selling the point that at any moment they are going to move to scare us, the wife, who is stood at the ironing board, can do nothing but wobble uncontrollably. In fact, she looks like a drunk using the board as a way of being able to stand up straight. This incessant movement makes her sudden blinking when John gets up close, fall flat. It is a good job that the rest of the ghosts make up for her mistake!

Wan and Whannell certainly take tropes from the horror genre and play with them, but what they do is invest so much time and energy into them that it feels like we are getting something brand new. And Joseph Bishara's musical score is electrifying with the music that comes over the movie's title card providing the first jolt of fear to travel down your spine. But where Insidious stumbles is the plot, like many films, it slows down considerably once the other dimension is mentioned and then visited. Like Close Encounters of the Third Kind got rubbish once we saw inside the space-ship, Insidious stops being unnerving when we travel to The Further. And, when one is in The Further, can you even be hurt. It is your astral body after all so how can chains hold someone down, why does The Red Faced Demon, sharpen his talons when he can't kill someone again? Any credible sense of threat unfortunately flies out of the window.
The plot is littered with little moments which, under close inspection, don't really add up.

But that isn't what one should look for when sitting down to watch Insidious, who cares if there are some points which don't totally add up? What Insidious should be considered as is a cracking good ghost story with genuinely scary moments. When watching this movie, it is not hard to see why they got two more sequels and a fourth movie on the way...