Our troubled middle-class family, the Lamberts, can’t manage a piece of original or distinct dialogue between them. The parents go to bed and talk like teenagers just into the “serious” stage of dating rather than grown adults with three kids to their name. But this is the least of the parents’ problems. There’s a baby to provide baby-monitor frights and a second child who gets only to be scared of his older brother before disappearing from the scenario. The older brother, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), is the real problem. Don't be fooled by the promotional posters that seem to cast him as a Devil Child. No: on one spooksome excursion into the attic, he bumps his head and soon afterwards falls into a coma. Around this time, events happen that seem to indicate the house is haunted. There is a baby monitor present, so you know how that goes (strange vocal sounds resembling Mike Patton improvising comes through the tinny speaker) and this is where “Insidious” provides its best stretch.
Although the film is not without atmosphere in the early stages, events clip along so quickly that I occasionally wasn’t aware the scene had changed or that, suddenly, they were unpacking, not still packing up to move… the family had already done so. Indeed, the speed and substance is little more than that of the short horror tales in, say, comics like “House of Mystery”, and as ultimately impatient and obvious as the worst of “Goosebumps”. What “Insidious” does have is a handful of nicely staged early scares and a bunch of funhouse ride jumps at the end. This appears to be what everyone is raving about. In fact, the final act is so stuffed full of desperate attempts to make the audience jump that it strangles the film whilst it is still flailing about. But let’s step back a bit because, before that, with the baby monitor scare, the film manages to truly tap into the scary.
Forgoing most of the flavourless dialogue and characters for a while, Wan concentrates on the frights, and some of them are great. The figure by the cot; the figure pacing up and down outside the window and, perhaps best of all, the dark shadow inside the house dancing around to an old tune as Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) looks in from a sunny exterior. At one point, the haunting not only has spectres in the house, but is also triggering the house alarms and opening front doors, tapping simultaneously into as many fears of home invasion as possible. Inevitably, Wan overdoes each set-up, forgoing the creeps for cheap jumps. There is a nice use of timing when the “Jump Blare” from the soundtrack happens a moment after the figure at the cot, but otherwise the escalations and cues are mostly obvious. Although there is a great chill when the figure pacing outside the window is suddenly pacing inside, it’s followed by the cheap jump of the figure making a grab for our token mother. Similarly, the dancing shadow in the house during the daytime gives way to a less poetic and eerie chase-the-ghost through the rooms. The creepy vision of the shadowy, inhuman arm standing by the bed of the comatose boy gives way to it tritely pointing at the kid. Nevertheless, this is the most successful sequence of scares, during which we discover that it is not the house that is haunted, but Dalton himself.
Discovering their first move has landed them in the world of “Poltergeist” and Asian horror ghost scares, the Lamberts simply get up and move. This is refreshing: how many times have we wondered why families stay in places that are terrorising them? Because it is Dalton that is haunted, the film is free to let them do what we all would think we would do: get out. Of course, the Lamberts actually have the finances, apparently, to do such a thing. One minute they are there, and the next they have moved with the snap of the fingers. Not bad for a teacher and, seemingly, a composer of songs for a living. Haunted houses ought to be tied in to all kinds of financial concerns and woes, but this is rarely exploited to the best in cinematic hauntings. In the new house, Renai Lambert continues to experience terrifying supernatural shocks. And then the film takes a total nosedive with the arrival of the ghost hunters.
First, the two slightly bickering nerds turn up for comic relief. Then, their boss the old lady medium Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) turns up and her terrible mumbo-jumbo and exposition about astral projection, malevolent entities and “The Further” throws the film way out from the sequence of enjoyable and genuine chills. Her horribly trite assumptions and supernatural medium abilities are barely challenged: Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) quite sensible throws her out at first but then, seeing some of his kid’s drawings on the wall, which he surely would have seen any number of times before, he suddenly realises that he is all wrong and Elise the medium is all right.
The film at this point has given over to its inane and laughable dialogue and explanations and imagines its haunts as spooks from a rock videos extras department: grinning, pasty-faced, haggard, whistling, wearing wedding dresses, you know the drill. Worst, “Insidious” falls ultimately into relying on devil imagery and by that time there is no sense that Wan and writer Leigh Whannel have any investment in their story or family at all: it’s just a tired and worn funhouse ride. I have overheard comparisons with “Drag Me To Hell”, but “Drag Me To Hell” works on a number of different levels, it is invested in its characters and in what horror means and can represent. Also, there is a gonzo sensibility to Raimi’s funhouse style that sets the precedent that very few seem able to follow without relying upon the same old, tired jump scares and wafer-thin characterisation. Wan even throws in a gas-mask contraption for the séance sequence because, well, gas-masks are scary, right? And do watch out for the little Jigsaw (from “saw”) doodle on the blackboard.
Towards the end, during the screening I attended (where people jumped like crazy at some places and openly laughed at ‘The Further’ in others), I leaned to my friend and joked that I predicted an “Astral smackdown” between astral projections. I was right. The film relies upon that American-Hollywood belief that simply shouting at the enemy/ghosts and being self-assertive can solve everything, and if you can have a punch-up, that's affirmative too. Where modern filmmakers seem to rely so much on editing learnt from advertising and music videos, where they seem to suffer from a crippling anxiety that the audience has no attention span, horror films with genuine pacing and build-up are being asphyxiated in the mainstream. Especially the modern mainstream ghost film, which relies so very much upon atmospherics and dread. So worried about not deviating from the standard Christian approach to American horror are such films that they throw in redundant devil imagery because, ~ as with “Insidious” ~ with no real characters, dialogue or atmosphere to fall back on, they have nowhere else to go. There is a last-minute attempt at a twist of sorts, but even that ends up a little as a dead end: what does it mean? What is the logical continuation of the final revelation? A family massacre? A difficult divorce?
Wan’s film insults on so many levels. You will take away a handful of good scares and a couple of jumps, but it is mostly derivative and cliché and ultimately condescending and insulting to its audience in those ways. This is horror for those that don’t necessarily like horror and think that all that horror is is “being scary” and jumping out of your seat. A ghost story as MTV video. And I would not count out a sequel.