Insidious, James Wan

Horror Film ‘Insidious’ Reminds That Being a Child Can Be Very Scary

Barbara Hershey, a seance, a gas mask – horror film Insidious reminds us that being a child among adults can be very scary.

James Wan
Film District
1 April 2011 (US) / 6 May 2011 (UK)

Barbara Hershey plays the scary mom (again) in James Wan‘s Insidious. But this time, she’s not haranguing her beset daughter to eat pink birthday cake. This time she’s haranguing her beset son to recover repressed memories.

In Insidious, that son is Josh (Patrick Wilson), a less-than-happy schoolteacher married to Renai (Rose Byrne) and father to three young children. He has convinced his wife to move to a new house in search of a new start following some unidentified trouble. She’s a songwriter, or more precisely, finally getting back to writing after birthing babies. And yes, she will be punished for spending time at the piano while the baby is upstairs alone – or, er, not so alone.

No surprise, the new house is soon revealed to be something like a cross between that place on the Indian burial ground and the other one in Amityville and probably the one plagued by Paranormal Activity, too. The first and most obvious clue comes when young Dalton (Ty Simpkins) checks out a creaky attic and is later found in a coma state. Doctors can’t explain it (“There’s no brain trauma!”), and his parents are horrified, for a minute anyway. Insidious jumps ahead a few months so that Dalton is brought home from the hospital to lay pale and pathetic in his bed.

The creepiness in Wan’s film has mostly to do with pace. A prelude to the whole business has informed you that a sinister face-in-the-window is laying claim to little boys’ souls, but Renai and Josh take an interminably long time to sort out what you anticipate. The camera tracks slowly behind her as she walks through various hallways and investigates odious noises.

Insidious spends less time watching Josh fume and evade, heading off to teach his class rather than help his wife deal with their infant, their comatose child, or their other son, Foster (Andrew Astor). Foster tells his mom he’s scared of Dalton: “I don’t like it when he walks around at night.” She doesn’t quite hear that right but struggles with her encounters with the supernatural – shadows skittering across the floor or hiding in closets, laughing at her, and wearing old paperboy-style clothes (because olden days costumes are scary). At last, Renai finds a sign of intrusion she can’t live with while Josh is staying late at school – and so she rages, cries, and insists they leave this terrible place.

Too late. Just days later, when they’re unpacking boxes again, it’s obvious to all but the willfully ignorant Josh that they’ve left none of their troubles behind. The monsters they’re dealing with are so… insidious that they’ve hitched a ride with the family. If Josh is slow and, frankly, rather resistant to grasp the truth, his mom, Lorraine, finally makes him face it. Here we see the motive for Hershey’s casting: she’s not just any reasonably worried grandmother, but a mom with a terrible secret. This won’t surprise anyone – except, rather vividly, her grown son.

Lorraine’s secret involves her longtime friendship with a psychic, Elise (Lin Shaye), who informs Josh and Renai – as you’ve seen in the trailers for Insidious – that it’s not their houses that are haunted, but rather, their son. This haunting sounds a lot like possession, but there’s no exorcist in sight, only this pert lady and her pair of nerdy employees, Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (screenwriter James Whannell). Their quick survey of the situation with homemade equipment produces a dire prognosis.

Only after Josh is advised that Dalton is lost in “astral projections”, besieged by spirits from a place Elise calls “the Further”, does he notice his son’s pleas for help in the form of startlingly violent black and red crayon drawings. Looking over his shoulder as he peruses these images tacked to the wall, you can’t help but wonder at his surprise. How long have these pictures been on Dalton’s bedroom wall, anyway?

Elise looks about to speed up the action when she arrives, ready for a séance-y effort. She dons a contraption that resembles a gas mask to communicate with the boy and any monsters hanging about, monsters who know her, as they call her a “bitch” and other mean names. “Leave the vessel,” she tells the bad spirits. Before you can say “Father Merrin”, furniture is crashing about and Elise is pitching to and fro, and Dalton’s parents are looking horrified indeed.

Elise in the mask is a sight to be savored, as the scene insists. Here and elsewhere, you’re reminded why Wan and Whannel have a reputation for conjuring effectively quirky horrors. Even if story and sense are not their strong suits, they can create an eerie image.

The camera pans the faces gathered in eight-year-old Dalton’s room, adults uncomfortable and unable to comprehend the childhood fears they’ve left behind. As Elise begins to whisper communications from beyond, Specs scribbling her words and also speaking them furiously for his rapt audience, you’re reminded that being a child can be very, very scary. Adults like to forget that.

RATING 3 / 10