Insidious (2010)

Review first published (in a shorter version) in LWLies

If James Wan’s debut feature Saw (2004) was a clever resurrection of the giallo, if his Dead Silence (2006) revived the ‘killer ventriloquist’s dummy’ of The Great Gabbo, Devil Doll, and Magic, if his Death Sentence (2007) looked back to the reactionary vigilantism of the Death Wish films, then his latest work Insidious shows that he has not lost his love for knowing genre pastiche.

The chief reference here is Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), as Wan (with his regular screenwriter Leigh Whannell) tells the story of a family turned upside down when one of the children becomes haunted by spirits from the other side, until an older psychic and her two college-age assistants (one played by Whannell) step in to help. Yet this familiar picture is greatly confounded by the sheer number of other filmic allusions permitted to intrude upon the narrative, like so many wayward ghosts craving to manifest themselves in the world of the living.

There is the haunted attic and desperate recourse to a priest from The Exorcist (1973), the spectral sisters in the corridor from The Shining (1980), the unhinged séance from Drag Me To Hell (2009) and the disembodied demonic footprints from 2007’s Paranormal Activity (whose writer/director Oren Peli produces here). A comatose patient seems only to be half asleep, as in Patrick (1978); the body of a hypnotised man is used as a portal by the dead, as in Two Evil Eyes (1990); and photographs exhibit an eerie clairvoyant power, as in The Grudge (2004) and Shutter (2004). Look closely at the whiteboard behind paterfamilias Josh (Patrick Wilson) as he teaches his high school class, and you will see both James Wan’s name written there, and a nod (in doodle form) to the film that first made his name.

It would be easy to make sense of any one of these references, but when Wan bombards us with so many of them in rapid succession, the constructed reality of his film starts to shift and reel before our eyes, and the irrational takes over. “You’re going to see a lot of confusing things, things you don’t understand,” warns the kindly medium Elise Reiner (Lin Shaye), moments before she dons a weird gasmask-like device to aid her (somehow) in making contact with the spirit world. She is not wrong – but the postmodern instability of Wan’s confusion of images and tropes is essential to their defamiliarising effect.

Similarly, by leaving unanswered a series of suggested questions, Wan and Whannell bedevil their viewers with uncertainty. What is the earlier trauma that caused the mother Renai (Rose Byrne) to have the breakdown which the film slyly adumbrates without ever explaining? Why are both Josh and his son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) so obsessed with age? And what adult mother wears pyjamas with an infantilised monkey-and-banana motif to match perfectly those of her young son? These odd little details may go precisely nowhere, but whereas in any other genre such loose ends would be a sign of sloppy writing, here they just form part of the film’s texture of creepy unease, adding an overdetermined layer of psychological dysfunction to all the more overtly supernatural goings-on in the family home.

Some horror films delve into a society’s political anxieties, others unnerve with uncomfortable home truths, while still others mine the darker, more neglected corridors of the viewer’s unconscious. Really, Insidious does none of these, as it is too busy scaring the bejesus out of its hapless, bewildered viewers. To say it is merely a rip-off of other films is to do no justice to the expert way in which James Wan handles and blends all these familiar materials for maximum thrills – and maximum disorientation. It might not win (m)any awards, nor gain much recognition, but when this unpretentious genre piece says boo, you’ll jump alright – and it is canny enough in its management of the uncanny to have you laughing too.

Enjoyment: Matches its scariness with an unhinged silliness.

In Retrospect: The spirit of Sam Raimi returns.

Anton Bitel