“It’s not the house that’s haunted, it’s your son.”
Boy, do I love a subversive spin.
In the wealth of modern horror movies, a film like Insidious seems rather tame especially when stacked against director James Wan’s far superior movie, The Conjuring. But Insidious remains a unique gem because the horror genre at the time was, to put it bluntly, pretty fucking WEAK.
Bear with me, if you can remember. Horror movies in the late 2000s had an obnoxious case of Asian remake fever – sprung from the success of remakes like The Ring and The Grudge. As the craze wore on with Dark Water, One Missed Call, and Shutter, horror movies became painfully content with cheaply repackaging the works of others.
To make matters worse, Hollywood was in the midst of remaking the films of Wes Craven, John Carpenter, and George A. Romero. (Some worked, but too many others didn’t.) Admittedly, I always gave these films the benefit of the doubt because I enjoy the pressure-cooker of a good scare. I crave a good roller coaster from time to time, so I found myself saying things like, “The Hill Have Eyes was kind of a dud, but maybe the new Halloween might be good,” or “Okay, Rob Zombie’s Halloween was boring, but maybe Friday the 13th will be better, or The Last House on the Left…”
If it felt like we were pointlessly going in circles, well, that’s what I recall it feeling like at the time. In fact, it was 2010’s Nightmare on Elm Street that made wonder if this is it? Had we reached peak horror years ago and not realize it?
When I first heard about Insidious, I was skeptical. A few cousins told me they couldn’t go to sleep after, while friends and classmates attested to seeing the movie twice.
Insidious wound up becoming THE horror movie that rejuvenated the genre for me personally. (It helps that it was produced under Blumhouse, a studio that takes horror movies seriously.) I might sound like I’m giving the film too much credit, but it resuscitated the wild-out thrill of an original horror idea like Scream in the middle of the 90s slasher movie craze, or Poltergeist sprouting (and getting insane replay) in the midst of Amityville Horror-knockoffs.
I’m using the term “original” very broadly here, because every story in some way echoes or intertextualizes stories of its kind that came before. One variant of the haunted house story follows down the pipeline of every single haunted house story prior. What made Insidious so fun was how it didn’t try to evolve or transcend the genre, but found a unique lens into the concept i.e. it’s not the house that’s haunted, IT’S THE GODDAMN KID.
If crisis of faith themes were director William Friedkin’s way into The Exorcist, then the great and terrible void of astral projection is James Wan’s key into the haunted house. I would never have thought of it. Now, it’s firmly entrenched in the backdoor of my nightmares. Just the notion of spirits wanting to inhabit your empty vessel of a body is SO deliciously terrifying, and is guaranteed to induce night terrors for anyone who’s experienced the paranoia of sleep paralysis.
Mind you, Wan doesn’t break the genre wheel because he’s still using the tricks of the haunted house playbook. But the idea of astral projection is a clever way into a tried and true concept, and this liberates Wan from audience expectation. We know the rhythm of paranormal ghost stories, and Wan knows we know this. He rattles our complacency first.
Your scares are only as good as your buildup. Most people think of horror movies in terms of the “jump scare,” which we often call out as “bad” when it feels forced or unearned. In many cases, that criticism is warranted. But really, a good scare whether jump-y or not is all about patience. And the hat-trick of a good horror director is misdirection.
The entire first act of Insidious is one giant buildup. First, Wan directs our attention to books taken off the shelf, things out of place, weird noises or creaks as the Lamberts settle in to their new home. Nothing unusual, but in a horror movie we latch onto these details in grave anticipation. Then, their son Dalton goes up to the attic where we’re expecting the first big scare. Dalton mysteriously falls, the tension mounting as we’re looking deep into the shadows and hearing something like twigs snapping, and then Wan promptly misdirects. Parents Josh and Renai take him to the hospital, he goes into a coma, and… nothing.
Instead of releasing the tension when we most expect it, Wan keeps on building. Voices are heard on the baby monitor, little brother Foster remarks that Dalton “sleepwalks,” there’s banging on the door in the middle of the night. Then, after we’ve let our guards down from sustaining it for so long, we glimpse this haunted motherfucker through the curtain.
The sheer jolt this moment gave me was as reassuring as it was downright terrifying. It’s such a tiny glimpse of a figure before the camera turns away, enough to register that we AND Renai see it. All that buildup, the paranoia, the confusion, and that haunted ass face is the frightening payoff.
Wan, of course, is just getting started. Once the Lamberts move out, we’re tricked into believing that this creepy jukebox of a movie has begun rewinding itself for the next scare and thus we can ease a bit. (After all, new house, new layout to get our bearings.) What does Wan do instead? He starts building RAPIDLY this time, crafting fiendish mini-sequences that misdirect our misdirection. He takes us winding through the Lambert’s new home (the sequence pulls double-duty as it establishes the house’s geography), things dart and burst and bump repeatedly, and then he introduces us to that laughing and dancing little shit, as well as the creepified track, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”
Even more impressive is how Wan toys with nothingness in the frame. He’s inventive enough to churn out a solid scare not by increasing the camera movement or showing off his ghosts. Atmosphere works tremendously in that regard (that is, if your movie has the patience to craft a sense of impending dread), and this can turn a seemingly harmless drawing into a heart-dropping reveal. It helps to have some very capable performers to play with. Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, and Lin Shaye all sell the HELL out of this premise. Sometimes a lingering closeup of their terrified faces boasts all the shock of a ghost lurching toward you.
Insidious boasts some memorable ghouls, but its most effective tactic is the brash screeching of an offkey violin. (Or perhaps a very in-tune one.) The score is so vital to the film’s sense of dread that the mute button would effectively cut a scene’s legs out from under it. Heck, this exposition dump of the Woman in Black is downright blood-curling. Part of it is in the setup and costume, and the other half is the immersive sound design. If it’s not the screeching violins or the crash of piano keys, then it’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” And if it’s not that, then it’s the snapping branches of the Red Demon’s gnarly fingers.
Insidious ends with a final scare that wound up kicking off an entire series. Insidious: Chapter 2 is more of the same with Wan madly gunning for some bits of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but the following two Insidious movies effectively milked the concept dry. The series attempted to weave threads with familiar entities and characters as linking verbs, but with The Conjuring rapidly carving out its interconnected “dark universe” simultaneously, it left little room for Insidious to do the same.
But while the first Insidious lasted, it was the biggest sigh of relief that the horror genre could cook up something energetic and unique if it wanted— or, for the love of God, not rely so much on remakes or the latest Stephen King adaptation. We as an audience had gotten so complacent with being oft-startled by jump scares that we had forgotten the sheer thrill of an original horror idea. Sometimes, you don’t need to break the wheel especially when that wheel isn’t broke. A little bit of inventiveness can make a dusty old setup feel frighteningly new again.