When was the last time you were scared by a movie? Genuinely scared? Not the fleeting exhilaration you experience when something jumps out at you or a teenager is squashed by a bus in Final Destination. Or the scopophiliac thrill you get when watching tight-bodied teens get tortured. Or the shaky-cam motion sickness you get from watching snotty film students get lost in the woods. No, I’m talking scared. Terrified. Sweaty palms, soiling your trousers, jumping at shadows on the walk home scared. Waking up in the middle of the night and screaming because the dressing gown hanging from the back of the door kinda looks like there’s someone in the room with you scared. The kinda scared where even seeing the trailer on the telly brings you out in goosebumps. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Horror movies just ain’t that scary anymore, are they? Fortunately, no-one has bothered to mention this to James Wan.
Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) are your average, happily married, young couple. He’s a teacher. She’s a songwriter. They have three cute, adorable kids. They’ve just moved into a new house. Sure, there are creaks and odd noises but every new home takes some settling into. Then one night the family go to bed and tragedy strikes. Their young son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) just doesn’t wake up the next morning. There’s no reason, no explanation, the doctors are baffled. Dalton is in a coma and he’s not waking up anytime soon. Strange things start to happen. The burglar alarm goes off in the middle of the night, disembodied voices can be heard whispering over the baby monitor, half-glimpsed figures menace the family. Something physically attacks the comatose Dalton. At their wits end Josh and Renai turn for help to psychic medium Elise (Farrelly Brothers favourite Lin Shaye) and her team of researchers (Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell). But something is getting closer to Dalton, something evil, something insidious...
The kind of horror movie that the smug post-modern irony of the Scream series stabbed to death years ago, James Wan’s Insidious is a throwback to the classic horror flicks of the ‘70s and ‘80s; a straightforward, honest attempt to scare the living daylights out of its audience. Essentially a riff on the familiar old haunted house story, Insidious is the shaggiest of shaggy dog stories. You’ve seen this film a thousand times. You could probably write it yourself. It’d probably go something like this: young family buy dream home. Young family experience strange phenomena in dream home. Young family call in the experts. All hell breaks loose. Before you can say “That’s going to adversely affect the property values,” the walls are dripping blood, the kids’ heads are spinning like tops and spraying vomit like an unearthly sprinkler system, decaying corpses are erupting in the garden and there’s a fiery gateway to Hell in the basement.
Your family’s gotta be young, wholesome, all-Americans, the kids have gotta be cute and the dog should have a waggy tail. Your experts can be psychic researchers like the ones in Poltergeist or physics students like the ones in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness but you might find that you want to go old school and stick with some kinda spiritual practitioner or holy man. Top of the list: Catholic priests. They served us well in The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror. And as long as you keep them away from the altar boys, they can be relied upon to spout Latin mumbo jumbo and get up in Satan’s face. You don’t like the dog collar? You want something a bit more hippy dippy New Age? Get yourself an American Indian shaman (The Manitou, Poltergeist 2). They’re a bit more laid-back and you’d be amazed how vulnerable hellspawn are to a tomahawk to the noggin. Without wishing to sound anti-Semetic though, give the rabbi a miss. They just ain’t much cop in a supernatural situation. Seriously, how many movies can you name where the rabbi is the first person on the haunted’s speed-dial? And that crap film where the girl is haunted by her own unborn twin doesn’t count because, let’s be honest, no-one remembers the name of that film. Not even the people who were in it.
You see? That’s how easy it is to write a modern ghost story. There are no new wrinkles, no new twists. You know all the tricks. Movies like Insidious just should not be scary anymore. Which is what makes Insidious so terrifying. It creeps up on you. You’re not expecting to be scared. You know this story, you know everything that’s going to happen. It has the cute family, it has the new home, the baffled doctors and scientists, the wise psychic. It ticks all the boxes. You’re too smart for it to catch you out, too hip to be scared. But Insidious is…insidious. It worms its way under your skin. Wan very quickly creates a family of believable characters, makes you care about them and then turns the screws on them. The tension builds steadily, the scares all the more effective because they are subtle. There’s nothing more frightening in a horror movie than turning a corner and seeing a dark figure at the other end of the corridor. Especially if the dark figure then grins at you. Or the sudden start as a record plays unprompted on the stereo. Or if a half-glimpsed figure runs giggling through the house as the heroine dissolves into hysteria. Wan throws so many tiny, little scares at you that by the time the excrement really starts hitting the fan, he’s already created an atmosphere of barely contained hysteria.
But even as he’s ticking boxes, Wan is subverting the stereotypes of the haunted house movie. How many times have you watched a horror movie where the walls are bleeding, the house is full of flies and there’s a dead woman in the bath and yelled at the screen “Just move house! Run away!” And how often do the family take your advice and just move? Never. Well, in Insidious, they do. Things get too much for the protagonists and they just move house! Only for the ghosts to move with them! By the time Wan introduces his team of experts to explain the plot to you, you don’t care how ludicrous the big reveal is. You just want them to make it stop. You want to go home and hide under the duvet. But you’re scared to. You don’t know what’s lurking under the bed, in the closet, in the shadows. And that’s why Insidious is the scariest movie since 2006’s Belgian chiller Ils (Them). Insidious makes you scared to be home alone. It makes you scared to go to sleep. Insidious is just plain scary.
Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye, Ty Simpkins