Insidious is something of an anomaly, and not just because of its unexpectedly profitable performance at the box office (Made for $1.5 million, its US domestic receipts to date total approximately $54 million). It’s also unusual in the way it tells the tale of a young family beset by a malevolent entity intent on claiming their eldest son. It’s definitely a horror, but it avoids all the trappings of the 21st century horror film in favor of telling a scary story, and telling it well.
Although Insidious was made by the minds behind Paranormal Activity (writer Oren Peli) and the Saw franchise (director James Wan, and producer Leigh Whannell), it isn’t like either of those films. Instead, it has more in common with the psychological thrillers and ghost stories of an earlier era. In fact it’s something of a throwback to the horror film of the ‘70s and ‘80s, both visually and in its depictions of the hallmarks of a haunting. There’s a distinct absence torture, gore, and on-screen violence.
Like the films that came before our current action, splatter and porn formulas Insidious allows the audience members to provide some of the scare for themselves. Leaving certain details to the viewers’ imaginations lets us fill in the thrills with the sort of fearful possibilities that can’t be captured, those that come from primal sources, which makes the movie much more frightening.
One of the ways this primal imagination is invoked is through the use of very low lighting. The sets and actors are underlit—even in the midday scenes—right from the start, adding a palpable tension to every shot. It’s really beautiful, as is the use of the most basic, classic cues like opening or closing doors, unseen whispers and laughter, and old records playing by themselves (Tiny Tim has never been this frightening!) to signify the presence of something ghostly.
Another old-school tool used to maximum effect is the slow build-up, in fact the first 15 minutes of the film will probably seem, to some, agonizing and unnecessarily drawn out, but stick with it. The extra time getting to know the characters of Josh (Patrick Wilson), Renai (Rose Byrne), their children and their home, will pay off in greater genuine gripping-the-edge-of-your-seat moments and more sincerely spine-tingling shocks as the pacing picks up.
Byrne (Damages, Adam) is superb and subtle as the mother who knows that something sinister and supernatural is happening in her home. As her fear grows, we see her hysteria progress believably without straying into overwrought histrionics. Wilson (Little Children) is equally believable as the non-believing husband. His portrayal of the skeptic suddenly forced to reckon with the paranormal is yet another element that helps put the audience in the moment. Josh is the one people will identify with, even more than desperate mother Renai.
Wilson and Byrne aren’t the only strengths in the cast. Lin Shaye plays a riveting psychic who is brought in at the request of Josh’s mom, played by a marvelous Barbara Hershey, who has had paranormal experiences of her own. Also notable are the two paranormal investigators employed by the psychic, whose competitive banter and pop culture references provide the necessary comic relief as the intensity of the film escalates.
It’s refreshing to find a film like Insidious, that is able to bring true scariness back to the horror genre without resorting to blood, gore and gratuitous violence. DVD special features include these three featurettes : “Horror 101: The Exclusive Seminar”, “On Set with Insidious” and “Insidious Entities”.