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Film Review: Insidious

Posted on by sam


Director: James Wan (2011)

Insidious became the happy middle ground, that meant I could watch another, ‘bad for your head’ horror film with my possibly irradiated housemate, without having to decide if I’m ready to see Paranormal Activity 3. Happy, in the loosest sense of the word possible, because, while not being the worst film I’ve seen, and even having a few rare positives, Insidious just isn’t very good. It should be good; the concept is good, a couple, Renai (Rose Byrne) and Josh (Patrick Wilson), along with their two infant sons and baby daughter, move into a new house with a creepy attic. One of the sons has an accident in the attic. Perfect fodder for a psychological ghost story really, but it doesn’t really try and be a ghost story.

Image courtesy of www.iforgotthelink.com

I started to have a sneaking suspicion all wasn’t right in camp horror, when, after a reasonably well executed character introduction, Insidious decided it needed a generic piercing sound effect over its title, shocking yes, but cheap, and without long term merit. This was especially jarring as Insidious then jumped back into slowly building its story, without any scary or invasive visuals. ‘Ok’, I thought, ‘that was weird, but at least they’re building characters now and Rose Byrne’s Renai actually seems an interesting character’. So, writing this unnecessary shock off as an ill judgement in an otherwise good start, I gave Insidious the benefit of the doubt.

I began to regret affording this benefit during a scene where Renai listens to a whispering voice on a baby monitor. There wasn’t anything particularly erroneous about this scene, until the whispering voice suddenly decided to shout with the previously mentioned generic piercing sound effect triumphantly blared again, Renai ran upstairs to find nothing and I jumped again at an empty shock that killed the atmosphere. Take out the piercing note, or even just replace it with something less jarring, and in all likelihood, despite my giant testicles, I’d probably have been at least a little frightened or tense.

Just as I was ready to right Insidious off, it then delivered a truly brilliant scene involving a burglar alarm. Oren Peli, director of Paranormal Activity, worked as a producer on Insidious, and while I have no clue and don’t particularly care if he had any input, I have to say this scene feels like a Paranormal Activity scene. It’s tense, drawn out and what might be happening is what makes it so scary. Then another scene of gratuitous explanatory dialogue kills everything, followed up by a random shock incorporating a man at a window.

I want to rant now about how constrained any horror film that simply relies on shocks is. Think of those online videos where people play a joke maze, or stare at a screen and then get shit scared as an evil face suddenly pops out in front of them. Once that face has occurred, no matter how you set it up, that person won’t be half as scared the next time it happens. Shocks are fine as a device used in horror films, but they will never be strong enough to carry a whole feature, so a film such as Insidious that relies on being ‘scary’ simply by using quick shocks and music, is just treading water. You can make me jump using a single shriek and a picture of a baby Koala bear, but making me jump is not the same as making me scared, or being entertaining. Hell, even a gory film like Saw knew it couldn’t be a one trick pony and used strong characterisation as well.

Halfway through, I turned to my housemate and explained how, so far, Insidious was a bit like being stuck in a conversation with a gorgeous girl whose voice sounds like nails on a chalk board. The whole conversation is a battle between your sex starved eyes and your victimised ears, with the question of whether she showers enough needing to be established before your nose weighs in and settles whether you’re going to bother slipping that rohypnol in her drink. I’m glad I made that awful, tortured, metaphor half way into proceedings, because at this point, Insidious abandoned all pretence of being a psychological horror film, and opted instead to go what I scientifically call, bat shit snooker loopy.

Remember the Evil Dead trilogy, and how they went from a tense gory original to a third instalment that became comedic, knowingly cheesy and slapstick. Well Insidious did something similar, but without any of the deliberate irony, or redeeming entertainment value.

Basically, despite focusing on the character of Renai up to this point, Josh suddenly becomes the focus, which would be better, if the most interesting thing he’d done up to that point had been something more substantive than falling asleep. Some comic relief wannabe Ghostbusters get introduced, leading to a couple more empty shocks, then an old lady gets a few lines of explanatory dialogue, so the film can move on to a showdown involving a demon and ghost that hasn’t been featured at all apart from a single sentence said by the old lady.

The ending by the way, is one of those shocking endings that they tend to do on B-list Stephen King adaptations, where they pretend it’s a clever twist, but really the whole thing is arbitrary, senseless and just basically shit.  There should probably have a spoiler alert, but if you reach the last five minutes and still care about anything that’s happening then hello to you, James Wan, or you Leigh Whannel (the writer), and may I suggest next time you lay off the funny pills until after you’ve finished shooting, or try and base your horror film on story and atmosphere rather than empty shocks.

I’m probably coming off as angry at Insidious, that’s because I am; there are good points to this film, good points like the burglar alarm scene, or the camerawork and lighting, which are both exemplary. Rose Byrne gives a good performance until they drop the focus off her, and they even managed to incorporate a Tiny Tim song into proceedings. Somehow, despite all these good points, all insidious managed to provide was empty shocks and an insultingly inane second half. I’ve seen reviewers talk about how good the first half of Insidious is, and that’s true, if you compare it to the second half, but not if you compare it to a horror film that’s actually good. There just isn’t enough story, characterisation or interesting scenes to sink your teeth into, and that’s what makes me angry, and sad…………………..and bored.

To finish by finishing off my tortured metaphor; it’s like I couldn’t decide whether the gorgeous girl smelled good or not, I didn’t get a whiff of anything too offensive but she suddenly started talking about her belief in homeopathy, and I gave her the rohypnol just to shut her up. But then I couldn’t resist so I went for a good time, but fortune turned around on me, as it turned out she had teeth in her vagina, and now my dick’s three inches smaller (giving me a grand total of -1 inches) and I’m sat there bleeding, wishing I had just bothered to watch Paranormal Activity 3 with my possibly irradiated housemate instead.

Written by Sam ‘Would you like a glass of wine’ McKinstrie

Unnecessarily on twitter as McKinstHFP

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