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Insidious (2011)
Director: James Wan

review by Jonathan McCalmont
SPOILER ALERT!
The history of art is the history of the conflict between the need for artistic innovation and the requirements of the particular form that the artist is working within. From Bach to Burroughs, great artists have embraced the traditions of their chosen form just enough to sell their projects and find an audience whilst allowing themselves enough room in which to do something new, shocking and brilliant. Written and directed by Leigh Wannell and James Wan - the creative team behind the inordinately successful and hugely influential Saw franchise - and produced in part by Oren Peli (director of Paranormal Activity), Insidious is a film that shows absolutely no interest in artistic innovation. However, while this film is completely at home within the boundaries and expectations of the horror genre, its technical prowess serves as a timely reminder not only of why these expectations exist, but also of how much can be accomplished by artists who possess a complete (if unambitious) mastery of their chosen form.

Renai and Josh Lambert (Rose McGowan and Patrick Wilson) have recently moved into a new house with their three young children. Right from the start, the move seems doomed as objects go missing and various family members complain of disordered sleep and troubling dreams. Gradually growing less and less subtle, these disturbing occurrences build to what, at first, seems to be a home invasion as doors are left open and alarms are set off. Worried by these events, the Lamberts are plunged further into misery when Dalton takes a tumble and winds up in an unexplained coma. As the strange visitations continue to increase, the Lamberts crack and move houses again only to discover that whatever it is that was making their lives a misery has followed them to their new home but, as ghostly children dance through the house and strange men leer out of corners, it is now abundantly clear that the Lamberts have more on their plate than burglars.

At this point, those of you who have seen Peli's Paranormal Activity will be struck by a crushing sense of d�j� vu as it turns out that it is not the house that is haunted but Dalton. Summoning a family of oddball parapsychologists (including a brilliantly off-kilter performance by Black Swan's Barbara Hershey), the Lamberts are informed that Dalton is an astral projector whose journeys have taken him so far into 'The Further' that he is trapped outside of his body and can no longer return home. With his soul no longer in residence, Dalton's body now serves as a beacon to all of those angry souls that are desperate to re-enter the world resulting in the family being buffeted by wave after wave of ghostly apparitions.

Aside from revisiting Paranormal Activity's idea of a haunted person (as opposed to, say, a haunted house, or mirror), Insidious also reprises that film's cosmology by featuring not just ghosts but also practicing parapsychologists, and malign demons that are altogether harder to deal with than your average spook. With the family on the brink of collapse and Dalton's soul at risk, father Josh has to confront his scepticism not only about what he is seeing but also about his past. Indeed, it turns out that, much like his son, Josh is a skilled astral projector and that the only thing that prevented him from getting lost as a child was the decision to hypnotise him so as to force him forget to his powers. Now, in order to save his son, Josh has to confront his past and venture into The Further in order to combat the demon that has captured his boy.

If my plot synopsis seems somewhat extended and spoilerific, it is only to emphasise not only the numerous similarities between Insidious and Paranormal Activity but also the extent to which the plot of Insidious simply does not matter. In truth, the charm of this film lies neither in the secularised religiosity of its mythology nor in the gender-coded stereotyping of its overly familiar character arcs. Insidious may well be a film that displays a breathtaking and cynical lack of originality, but Judas Priest it's a lot of fun!

The first source of joy is the ever-increasing absurdity of the film's imagery. Insidious begins with creepy attics and things that go bump in the night but, before long, we are treated to a cavalcade of gurning spectres, old ladies in gas masks and a demon that looks like the anime love-child of Freddy Krueger and a slapped arse. While this growing sense of silliness may well drain much of the film's early tension and replace it with a sort of surrealist carnival atmosphere, this move is entirely genre-appropriate. Indeed, there is a fine line between the gasp of terror and the laughter of relief and walking this line for the length of a feature film requires a control of tone and pacing that is difficult to master. As Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell (2009) demonstrated, it is all too easy for a film to attempt to be both funny and scary while managing to achieve neither.

Aside from its visual inventiveness, Insidious also impresses by the sheer quality of its direction. As one of the pioneers of so-called 'torture porn', James Wan is far from being an uncontroversial figure in the history of cinematic horror but Insidious is a timely reminder that while there is much to lament about the Saw franchise, one cannot reasonably question the talent of its original director.

Insidious is a film all about camera positioning and movement. Wan and his directors of photography David M. Brewer and John R. Leonetti make fantastic use of their sets as they position their cameras in such a way that you are invariably convinced that there is something lurking just out of sight. Wan makes deft use of musical cues and lighting to coax scare after scare from the under-powered script, knowing exactly when to milk a scene for tension and when to move on, meaning that the film's pacing remains beyond reproach despite a burden of exposition and characterisation that grows unusually as the film progresses.

The only misstep Wan makes in the entirety of the (rather lengthy) 103-minute runtime is a tendency towards self-indulgence in the under-developed Further sections. Overly reminiscent of the iconography of video games such as the Silent Hill, Max Payne, and Dragon Age franchises, these scenes feel overlong for the diminished returns they offer. Neither scary, nor funny nor all that interesting to look at, these final scenes fail to deliver the visual impact required of them. Deprived of a climax and possessing no emotional bottom, Insidious ends on something of a down note, its lack of an ending standing in stark contrast to the fun and invention flowing throughout the rest of the film.

Its misjudged ending notwithstanding, Insidious is proof that horror still has the power to entertain and to thrill without the need for 3D gimmickry, pointless nostalgia or needless deconstruction, and that all you need to deliver a really effective work of cinematic horror is a good crew and a talented director to guide them. You don't even need a script, or actors, or ideas...

Insidious



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