Film Review: Insidious

Directed By James Wan
Starring Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, Lin Shaye and Leigh Wannell

A quarter of the way through Insidious, I had to remind myself again that it was a film by Saw director/writer duo James Wan and Leigh Wannell. Surely the creative team responsible for modern horror’s most cheap, lazy, gratuitously gory and undeservedly successful franchise couldn’t be behind such a restrained, chillingly atmospheric and genuinely frightening ghost story, right? Surprisingly, for most of Insidious, that’s exactly the case as the two craft a commendably subtle frightfest filled with masterfully engineered scares and let down only by an overblown finale.

Young married couple Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) and their three children are just settling into their new house when a fright in the attic leaves eldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) with a bang on the head. Though initially fine, he slips into a coma that the doctors can’t explain as his parents take care of him from home, hoping he’ll wake. Things worsen when spooky occurrences start to escalate around the house – whispers on the baby monitor, late night disturbances and ghostly apparitions. As Renai becomes increasingly terrified and distraught, Josh packs up the family and moves houses, but the ghostly phenomena only worsen as they realise it isn’t the house that’s haunted, but their comatose son Dalton.

Scariness is an subjective concept; what terrifies me might not creep you out remotely. Hell, there are enough people in the world scared of plants and balloons that both phobias have earned their own scientific definition (botanophobia and globophobia, respectively – you learn something new every day). As a general rule, though, it’s what we don’t see that scares us most, as what our imagination can conjure up is infinitely more terrifying than anything a special effects department can paint together.

For much of Insidious, Wan and Wannell understand that, and much like Paranormal Activity mastermind Oren Peli (who serves as a producer on Insidious), adopt a refreshingly old-fashioned approach to horror, setting about tapping into our primal fears with unexplained bumps in the night, fleeting glimpses of shadowy figures and faces at the window, jolting you with skilfully crafted scares and showing you just enough to set your imagination reeling as chills creep up your spine. For the first hour, Insidious is one of the most assuredly frightening horror films in the past twenty years.

Sadly, by the third act, those terrifyingly creepy, tightly-wound scares give way to spookhouse spectacle. Insidious slips into the same trap as Paranormal Activity 2 – a shockingly resilient sequel/prequel that showcased masterful scares but became instantly less effective the second it forgot its strengths and started piling on convoluted mythology and traditional slasher scares. Unexplained bumps in the night that send our imaginations into overdrive are potentially terrifying, something we’ve all experienced and been scared of at one time or another. Possessed killers snapping necks like Arnie in Commando? Not so much. Likewise, the finale of Insidious ditches scares for silliness as Wan exposes us to astral dimensions, Freddy Krueger-like villains, fist fights with ghosts and a heaping of backstory to dilute the more subtle, abstract, unnerving terror of the opening hour.

The disappointing last act is a shame, but Insidious still conjures up more bone-chilling frights than almost any horror movie in recent memory. For the most part, it’s an admirably restrained and commendable old-fashioned haunted house movie that’s all the more terrifying for its moments of subtlety, and serves to prove that the further James Wan gets from the dreadful Saw franchise, the more impressive a filmmaker he becomes.


Insidious is showing in UK cinemas now.