I invite you now to turn your attention towards another recent film that was a pretty popular topic of discussion just last year. Though this one didn't receive quite the same level of acclaim as Cabin. in some ways, it is every bit as ambitious, while also providing a greater number of genuine scares. It gives me great pleasure to present my 14th favorite horror movie of all time:
For the first half hour or so of this 2011 release from writer Leigh Whannell and director James Wan, I expected that I would be entertained enough and appreciative of an obviously talented cast, but that I would by no means be blown away by this film. Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson skillfully inhabit the characters of Renai and Josh Lambert, a struggling musician and her husband, who is supporting her while she tries to produce some quality songs. The two have good chemistry together, and moreover, they also have good chemistry with Ty Simpkins and Andrew Astor, the young actors who play their sons, Dalton and Foster. They are an instantly believable and likable family, and this fact makes you want to keep watching. But for just a little while, what you're watching them do seems like it's all stuff we have seen before. Renai is left alone with the kids while Josh works, and she starts hearing strange creaking sounds, as well as noticing that important belongings of hers have seemingly disappeared. It all began to seem like I was being set up for two hours of watching a wide eyed woman creep around an empty house, cowering at every noise and slowly losing her mind. Based on the promo art for the film, I also figured a stereotypical evil child would factor in there somewhere. I now see these initial impressions as the first of many clever tricks pulled off by the script, which suddenly takes off in unexpected and imaginative directions just as you start to think you've got the entire plot more or less mapped out.
The surprises begin when Dalton inexplicably loses consciousness, and simply never regains it, even though the doctors can find no medical reason for him to be comatose. After that, the pace picks up with stunning ferocity. Whereas other films of its kind might introduce some ghostly, half-heard whispers in one scene and then raise the volume of these disturbances to a sinister bellow a few scenes later, Insidious completes that progression in the span of several heartbeats. One moment, Renai thinks she hears someone in her infant daughter's room over a baby monitor, and in the next second, she's already hearing a full-throated, demonic roar. Later that same evening, Renai and Josh are tormented by another ceaseless onslaught of strange occurrences which most other horror films would surely have stretched out over at least several evenings. Before you know it, Renai is seeing strange things as well as hearing them, and Foster is claiming that the still-comatose Dalton has been wandering around the house at night.
All of this was enough to make me realize that Insidious intended to go a little more balls-to-the-wall than most haunted house stories, but I still thought it would fall short of being an all time favorite. I was enjoying the hell out of the movie's breathless pace, and thrilled to discover that it was nowhere near as monotonous as I feared it would be, but nothing had happened yet to provide a truly original angle to the plot. And then Barbara Hershey showed up with a solemn and haunted performance as Josh's mother, Lorraine, and the real innovations began.
From the moment Lorraine shows up, you can tell she knows more about what's happening than she lets on. Whereas Josh's belief in the things Renai has seen and heard is tenuous at best, Lorraine sympathizes with her to an extent that would be quite uncommon for anyone who didn't already have reason to believe in the supernatural. She seems somewhat unnerved when she sees a framed picture of Josh, musing that she can't believe Renai could get him to hold still for the camera, and making it clear that her son has a longstanding aversion to having his picture taken. This thickens the plot with an intriguing thread of mystery, which I am not enough of a spoilsport to resolve for you here. When Lorraine starts having terrifying nightmares about Dalton and seeing demons even when she's awake, she resolves to introduce Renai and Josh to an "old friend" she thinks might be able to help.
That friend is a gifted medium named Elise Rainier (a dynamite Lin Shaye, who is no stranger to the horror genre). But before Elise gets there, she sends a couple of advance scouts to make sure the case is actually worthy of her attention. That's when we get to meet the nerdy and socially awkward Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (screenwriter Leigh Whannell himself), whose constant need to one-up each other often causes them to display a lack of sensitivity to the Lambert family's plight. Tucker and Specs bring a robust amount of humor with them, which may initially seem at odds with the overall tone of the film to some viewers. However, I have actually met paranormal investigators in real life when they've come shopping for books on folklore and hauntings in bookstores where I worked, and they truly did act a lot like Tucker and Specs (although the movie versions are just slightly better dressed). The goofiness and lack of social graces displayed by these two held an authenticity that won me over, and the fact that they are somewhat out of step with the other characters soon began to seem like a deliberate device of the script, rather than an oversight or mistake.
Once the investigation begins, everything goes absolutely gonzo and the plot is more thoroughly nailed down. Dalton Lambert turns out to be quite a gifted young man. He is able to astrally project his spirit from his body, and has been doing so in his sleep. Since he thought he was only dreaming, he was unafraid to wander as far as he was able, and he ended up becoming lost in a place that Elise calls "the Further." Dalton's uninhabited physical body therefore became an attractive gateway into our world for a numerous assortment of entities, all with their own motivations and histories, and all of whom are scrabbling for the chance to possess the young man's form. Some of these things just want another chance at life, but a few of them are downright...I have to say it...insidious. The scariest and most important of the otherworldly antagonists are a red and black faced demon who seems to be in near total control of who can see him, and when, and a tall, gaunt old woman who some of our characters turn out to have encountered before. Although they're not as integral to the plot, we also get to meet a ghostly family of apparent murder victims, and their shotgun toting killer, all of whom wear garish, frozen expressions and seem to be able to teleport from room to room.
The sheer power and capability of the supernatural entities in Insidious is yet another factor that distinguishes it from many other films. These things can really hurt people and have no qualms about revealing their presence in order to do so. They throw characters around rooms like they're filled with straw and can even emit shockwaves of demonic energy that can take out half a dozen people at once. Rather than opting to hint at the presence of evil beasties without ever having the gumption to show us what they look like, Insidious gives us full on views of some pretty cool looking ghosts and demons who seem strong enough to give a team of superheroes a run for their money. Of course, the people going up against them are far from being superheroes, which makes the whole set up all the scarier.
It's not just the monsters we get a good look at, either, but also the world they inhabit. Eventually, a rescue attempt is made to retrieve Dalton's lost soul when a way is found to send another character after him into the Further. At first, the place seems like just an endless stretch of pitch darkness, but that turns out just to be the outer border of a fantastically twisted and richly imagined dimension. In order to get out, Dalton and his rescuer have to confront the red faced demon deep in the heart of his own lair, a palacial, cavernous place that I couldn't help being impressed by.
The film is peppered throughout (especially in the scenes that take place in the Further) with a musical score that would be right at home in a Dario Argento film. A whole department of people contributed to this score, and they really did themselves proud. I don't typically come away from modern horror films with any clear memory of what the music sounded like, but I will never forget the nerve-rattling jangle of the Insidious score. It always seems to pop up at just the right time to add extra depth to the constantly mounting tension and suspense.
Some people have bemoaned the fact that Insidious is only rated PG-13, feeling that any self-respecting horror film should have a solid R rating. While I agree with that notion to some extent, in the case of this film, you shouldn't let the PG-13 rating fool you. All it really means here is that Insidious didn't need a ton of gore to tell its story and it's not one of those films that will ever be known for its body count. You still get the sense that these characters are in near constant danger and it's still a scarier film than a good number of its R-rated fellow travelers.
Insidious has no shame about using several plot devices we've seen in other movies, including creaky houses, doors flying open and closed on their own, and a child's clumsy drawings which turn out to have crucial significance in convincing a skeptical adult that yes, something supernatural really is occurring here. However, in the cases where it does use elements we've seen before, it usually tweaks them just enough to make them its own. The child's drawings, in particular, are used here in a much more touching way than I have seen in any other scary flicks that have done similar things. While upholding time honored elements of horror, Insidious also adds some unique elements to the genre. It has a deeper metaphysical bent than many other tales of haunted families, it gives us the well-realized world of the Further to feast our minds and imaginations on, it moves at a more engaging clip than a lot of films in any genre, and it features monsters that are unafraid to throw their power around and do not shy away from human contact. it's also one of those rare gems in which every single actor playing a main character delivers an impeccable performance. This cast was obviously perfectly in tune with their director, a fact that shows from the very first scene to the very last. It wraps its ambitious number of plot elements up into an impressively neat package by the time it reaches its wicked gut-punch of an ending, and sends you away satisified, but still concerned for and attached to its characters. It blew me away even after I initially leaped to the conclusion that it couldn't, and made me absolutely thrilled to be proven wrong.
My 13th favorite horror movie is coming soon, so stay tuned!