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WRITTEN REVIEW: Insidious: A Fashionably Late Review

This review’s been a long time coming for me. It was probably about a year ago that I promised Cory and Forest I’d give them a guest review for the film Insidious. As has become my style, I guess, I’m now finally living up to my word – albeit a little late. But with the impending release of Insidious: Chapter 2 on September 13, it seems like now is a great time to revisit the first film and see if it really has lived up to all the hype built up since its release.

This review is more of a discussion about the movie than anything else, so expect to see some spoilers and presumptions about the plot ahead. I figured this isn’t as much of a big deal seeing as the movie is already over 2 years released. But if you haven’t seen the film yet, let this be your warning.

The Basics
Insidious is a 2011 supernatural horror directed by James Wan. Wan is notable for delving into horror a few other times with the very first Saw in 2004 and the extremely recent The Conjuring released about a month ago.

The story follows Josh and Renai Lambert (played by Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, respectively), a young couple with two small sons and a new baby. After moving into a new house, one morning the couple discovers their eldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) unresponsive in bed. With doctors stumped about why he won’t wake up, the couple moves him back to the house and takes care of him with the help of a feeding tube and other medical equipment.

Down the Beaten Path of Supernatural Horror
It’s at this point that things start to get strange in the house. Renai begins to hear and see things that are typical of a supernatural horror film – menacing voices over the baby monitor, angry looking men looming near the unconscious Dalton, and a bloody demon claw print on the bed as she’s changing the sheets. Her husband initially plays the cliché skeptic, refusing to accept and believe that anything supernatural is going on in the house.

My guess is that the film starts off in this very prototypical supernatural niche to draw the viewers in and get that suspension of disbelief working. And for what it’s worth, even though they’re a bit cliché, the supernatural scares are pretty decent.

From Edward Cullen to Darth Maul
One particular scene that really built up the tension occurs about 25 or so minutes into the movie. While lying in bed, Josh and Renai hear a very distinct knocking at the front door of the house. Josh investigates the knocking and sees nothing at the front door. Renai hears their baby crying and when she walks into the baby’s room, she sees a menacing figure (who looks a bit like Edward Cullen of Twilight fame) standing at the foot of the bed.

She screams and Josh runs to the baby’s room to see what’s going on. When he’s up there, the house’s security alarm goes off. Josh heads back down the stairs and is shaken by what he sees: the alarm is blaring and the front door is wide open with the chain swinging back and forth. Josh cautiously searches the house but finds nothing inside or out. He disables the alarm but it turns back on again with no explanation.

The scene successfully reinforces the sense of menace that Renai was already experiencing. I really thought it was an effective little bit of the film.

As more strange and horrifying events occur, Renai finally convinces Josh to move out of their new house and escape the terror. As they’re settling into their new house, Renai is shocked to encounter a small ghost boy playing a record of Tiny Tim’s Tiptoe Through the Tulips. While the sighting terrifies Renai, it’s here that the viewer may find himself or herself confused. Was the demon or entity really just a little boy? What about the Edward Cullen-esque figure Renai had already seen?

In another memorable scene, Renai is sitting in the dining room with Josh and Josh’s mother Lorraine (with a great performance by Barbara Hershey). Lorraine describes a dream she had where a demonic entity was looming by unconscious Dalton’s body, saying he was there to claim the boy. As Lorraine describes the dream, she looks up and sees what I’d describe as none other than Darth Maul himself peering back at her from behind Josh.

While the character designs of some of these dark forces may have taken a few creative liberties from Star Wars and Twilight, I didn’t think this sorta’ funny observation detracted too much from the story.

Changing Things Up
It’s about this point in the movie where things start to go a bit less-than-expected for a supernatural horror film. Josh and Renai predictably consult a priest and eventually bring in spiritual medium Elise (played by Lin Shaye). She’s accompanied by her two comic relief cohorts Specs and Tucker, nerdy type scientists who seem to get off on the prospect of paranormal investigation and equipment readings.
Elise bears the news that changes the entire scope and trajectory of the film. Dalton has remained in a coma-like state because he has been wandering through the astral plane, which Elise calls the Further, in his sleep. He got too far from his body and couldn’t find the way back. Demonic forces within the Further are also searching for Dalton’s body so they can exist in the physical world. That’s what explains Renai’s sightings of multiple entities – Edward, Darth, and the strange little boy. They’re all hanging around because they’re looking for Dalton’s body but can’t quite find it.

From here, Elise and Josh’s mother reveal that Dalton inherited the gift of astral projection from his father, Josh. Josh must travel into the astral plane to rescue Dalton and bring him back to his body.

I’ll leave the final climax and ending for you to see for yourself, but rest assured upon first viewing I definitely didn’t see it coming. The pacing of the film was abruptly interrupted with the introduction of Elise, Specs, and Tucker. And the reveal of the astral projection element to the narrative changed the entire supernatural undertone the film worked so hard to build. While the concept of the astral plane and project is fantastical, the explanation within this movie grounded the unexplainable into a tangible concept. Because of this, Insidious becomes a considerably different movie in its latter half.

Why Insidious Succeeds
When I first watched the film I wasn’t too thrilled about this sudden an unexpected change in the plot’s dynamic. Personally I never had too much of a problem with Specs and Tucker because, to be honest, that’s how paranormal investigators tend to be. My problem was that I allowed my own expectations of the film to interfere with what the movie actually is.

When I watched Insidious a second time, I realized that this movie succeeded quite well at taking a tired concept like supernatural haunting, bringing a real explanation to it, and shifting the dynamic into a much more interesting application. It took two viewings to really understand this, but it helped me to enjoy the movie that much more because of my efforts.

Perhaps the early scenes of supernatural haunting could have been a bit less cliché in their presentation. And I know that the giveaway about the astral projection could have transitioned a bit more smoothly making the film feel a little less divided. But the big picture of the movie comes together in a very cohesive way and concludes in a twisted – but appropriate – finale.

What About Insidious 2?
While many critics have already panned James Wan for making a sequel to a film that seemed to wrap things up in a rather diabolical way, I can see why he opted for it (beyond the money). Helming the very first Saw movie, he watched as that franchise sunk from a smart and poignant shock horror into a muddled pile of sadomasochistic mediocrity. He felt that he could continue to tell the story from the first Insidious while maintaining the same directorial vision he brought from the first vision. And while this level of director loyalty doesn’t always mean great things for sequels, it’s an admirable move from a filmmaker’s perspective.

As it stands, Insidious is a unique enough entry in the exhausted supernatural horror genre to keep you entertained from start to finish. While the sudden changeups in mood and subject matter may confuse you a bit, stick with it. Watch it at least once more now that you know a little more about the narrative itself. I guarantee you that it will have considerably more staying power than other reveal-style movies like The Sixth Sense. And if anything, it will get you in the mood for a nice pre-Halloween scare fest that Insidious: Chapter 2 will hopefully deliver.


★ ★ ★ ★




Not Harvey said...


Slaughter Film said...

Well thank you for sharing your opinion "Not Harvey". I also enjoy this remarkable review. - Cory