Right from the off, Saw duo James Wan (director) and Leigh Whannell (writer) clearly intend to embody the most recognisable conventions of the classic frightener. Fraught strings accompany a roving camera around a darkened house, up until the point where the viewer is granted the briefest glimpse of … a disturbing face illuminated by a candle. For the first 40 minutes or so Insidious continues in this vein, laden with atmosphere, lurking menace, and sudden shocks. But then it unravels, falling back on sub-Poltergeist investigations, botch-job explanations, and an uninspired exploration of an underdeveloped alternate realm.
There’s an awful lot that seems familiar here in fact. Which can be a blessing to a genre that relies on the tried-and-tested, but it can also be tiresomely derivative if one isn’t careful. Insidious borrows liberally from both Poltergeist and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but Wan is unable to summon an ounce of their iconic lustre.
Initially, he is able to effectively plays with expectations. The Lambert family (Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne and three kids) has moved into a new house and, lo and behold, it appears to be haunted. When one of their children, Dalton (Ty Simpson, so good in last year’s Iron Man Three), mysteriously enters a coma we know something’s up but his parents seem oblivious. Yet this is a post-Scream horror (albeit not a self-reflexive one) where the filmmakers hopefully know heroes can’t be too slow to twig there are supernatural nasties about. In the case of Byrne’s Renai anyway. Wilson’s Josh is more resistant, but we’ll discover there’s good reason for this (I assumed his reticence was leading to a reveal that he was having an affair, but it never comes).
All the signs of a poltergoost are there; a box of sheet music mysteriously disappears and then shows up again, books end up on the floor moments after being placed on a shelf, a red handprint appears on the sickly child’s bed sheet, there are assorted ghostly apparitions, creaking doors and darkened shuffling attics. Joseph Bishara’s score greedily grasps every opportunity to pile on the shock tactics, any time a half-seen figure materialises. A particularly effective sequence involves whatever the hell is making those sounds Renai can hear on the baby monitor. But then, as noted, Wan and Whannell pull off their front-loaded surprise (except if you’ve seen the movie poster). The dumb parents don’t follow the usual script, regardless of common sense. Oh no. Renai announces, “I’m scared of this house” and persuades Josh (who is experiencing seemingly unmotivated visions) that they should up and leave.
Of course, no sooner have they done so than Renai realises they’ve brought the haunting with them. Josh’s mum (Barbara Hershey) tells of a particularly spooky dream where a figure appeared in the corner of Dalton’s room (Whannell was likely plundering David Lynch). Of course, it’s slightly less terrifying to find this demon bears a strong resemblance to Darth Maul. But it isn’t until Lin Shaye’s psychic investigator Elise arrives that Insidious starts to lose its way. She’s accompanied by a duo of comedy geeks, Specs (Whannell himself) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) and she pays off the mystery with some really phoney exposition (“It’s not your house that’s haunted. It’s your son”; but what do I know, it’s the poster tag line). When a writer introduces his trump card with a line like “Have you ever heard of astral projection?” you know you’re in trouble, and the realisation of Whannell has up his sleeve is decidedly deflating. Not only is there a lacklustre name for his other place; the Further, “a dark realm filled with the tortured souls of the dead”. Uh-huh. But there’s a reveal of some really in-your-face drawings Dalton festooned his bedroom wall with, that mom and dad somehow failed to notice, showing him astrally projecting and… that ever-so nasty demon chap. Doh!
The communication session is a bit of a botch too. The odd quirky moment aside (Elise wears a gas mask that somehow facilitates interaction with the other place) Wan has gone astray now, flooding his stage with unatmospheric lighting (not a patch on Poltergeist), no doubt fully aware that tiny Dalton throwing investigators around a room looks very silly. The revelation that Josh himself was once an astral traveller, preyed upon by a nasty demon all his own, is reasonably effective. But his trip into the Further is entirely lacking, with a one-note confrontation conjuring the memory of Robert Englund’s forays into unsuspecting teenagers’ dreamscapes. There is even a moment where, having rescued Dalton, Josh does the classic “I’ll catch you up” thing beloved of horror movie clichés, so forget that post-Scream awareness thing. Wan even throws in the de rigueur oldie put to sinister use (Tiptoe Through The Tulips by Tiny Tim).
And then he pulls a Brian De Palma, with a twist ending I probably should have seen coming but didn’t. During the ‘70s that would probably have been it, but fast forward four years and a second sequel is on the way for this minor cash cow. Byrne, Wilson, Shaye and Hershey all perform commendably, unified in their attempts to breathe life into hoary old dialogue. But it’s Wan’s aptitude for suspense and staging during the first half that deserves the most credit. Still, given that the communication session is the closest Insidious gets to an action scene and it’s also the least effectively handled, it gives me slight pause as to whether he can come up with the goods for Fast and Furious 7.