I’m not the type of moviegoer who can “turn off their brain” for a big summer movie like Transformers 2 in order to give an otherwise bad film a pass. I’m not a snob, I would argue that I'm quite the opposite in that my primary interests are the “lowbrow” genres. But I am of the strong belief that a poorly made film cannot hide behind its genre affiliation, no matter how loud the insistence of the film’s defenders that I should: “relax, it’s only a movie.”
James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s Insidious is one of the few films I can think of that dodges this ongoing debate entirely. Here we have a film that demands to be taken on its own terms. If genre-savvy viewers (those who have seen more than a handful of fright films and were born before the Clinton administration) want to enjoy Insidious, they must acknowledge that the film is a composite. When I say composite, I don’t mean to imply that Insidious has anything in common with the mosaic filmmaking of Quentin Tarantino, or the pastiche/homage/rip-off tendencies of his imitators. What I mean is that with Insidious, Wan and Whannell (the writer/director duo behind Saw) have created a film that’s such a tight an assemblage of familiar spookhouse scares, that it never desires to be its own film. This does not mean that Insidious lacks merit as horror entertainment: if judged on the number of effective jump-scares alone, it would rank among the best ever.
Insidious is a loving and well-made “greatest hits” reel for the last century of horror cinema, but it completely fails if you try to scrutinize it as a film in and of itself. If that sounds like a conflicted statement, it’s meant to be. The promotional material included on the disc indicates that the duo set out to make just such a Frankenstein patchwork, by having them run down a veritable laundry list of famous moments they wanted to include.
For a film with a such a comparatively small budget, Insidious looks great, especially on Blu-ray. Wan gives a nice sense of geography with his camera movement and placement, and it’s the main reason that the scares work so well. The look may be effective, but the film borrows even its aesthetic from other films by using the "dank-but-slick" look popularized by the American remakes of Japanese films like The Ring and The Grudge.
Wan and Whannell fill their roadside-attraction of a movie to the brim with onscreen talent, but never deliver a single character that seems real or even dimensional to the point where they deserve names. There is The Dad (the talented Patrick Wilson), The Mom (the even more talented Rose Byrne), The Grandmother (Barbara Hershey whose inclusion I suspect is a nod to one of my own favorite films of this type, The Entity) and The Psychic (prolific character actor Lin Shaye). The film’s adherence to the haunted house/possession genre is so strict that I really don’t have to tell you much more beyond those character-types for you to synopsize the plot for yourself. All but one of these non-characters fit perfectly into the mechanism that is Insidious. The sore-thumb is Rose Byrne’s character, who spends the majority of the film screaming, crying and never really solving anything until her skeptic naysayer of a husband has to step up and save the day. The extreme degree to which her character is ineffectual would be insulting if everything else about the film weren’t so intentionally under-written.
Most of what I’d heard about the film mentioned how disappointing many people felt the ending was, as it does descend quite rapidly into preposterousness. Personally I was all for it. I enjoyed it just as much as the rest of the film and the scares never slow. I genuinely liked the look of the main demon (he’s like a red, humanoid and creepy Gonzo The Great) and felt that “The Further” sequences at the end were home to the very few original ideas in the movie.
So do I recommend you seek out Insidious? Yes, highly, but only if you're looking for some scares...and soild ones at that. But be warned, these “free-standing” shocks don’t ask that you for one moment care about the connective tissue between them. As against my nature as it is to say: I had no problem enjoying Insidious “for what it is.” It does what it was engineered to do and it does it well.