The last time that I was ever truly scared by a horror movie was probably when I was about 13 or 14 years old; in other words, a very long time. I would constantly have the shakes, my hands would sweat and I would be gripping my jaw intensely trying to not look away from the movie. The last movie that did this for me wasn’t Paranormal Activity, even though I was genuinely scared by it… but rather Amityville Horror (the remake). Sure it was a remake but since then, I have never been scared by a horror movie and it’s been a little over 5 years now and I was still waiting. Before Amityville, the last horror movie that scared me wasn’t even a modern film but rather one made in the late 80s. So you can see how low horror has progressed and you’ll understand why I was so shocked (literally) to find out how good James Wan’s new film Insidious was. I saw a private screening of it here in Chicago and I went in not knowing anything about the film or who directed it. I didn’t even see a poster or a trailer for it and I walked out of the theater shaking. It was the first movie, in years that brought me back, mentally, as a kid first discovering what horror was. My hands were sweaty, I was shaking, I was heating up and I was clenching my mouth trying to keep my eyes on the screen. After the credits rolled, I was breathing heavy and I was still trying to put two and two together. So, now that I gave you my reaction, let me discuss what the film is about and why it was so good.
In a nutshell, the film is Paranormal Activity crossed with Poltergeist. It’s not surprising since the producers of P.A. produced Insidious, so naturally they are drawn to demonic possession. The film is about a typical American family that moves into a haunted house. The spooks victimize the hard-working wife of the family and she begins to see and hear things that aren’t natural. Then, the unthinkable happens, their oldest son (probably 9 or 10) falls into a coma and the mother desperately tries to keep a grip on her sanity. After convincing her husband to move out of the haunted house, it’s apparent that the house isn’t haunted but rather her comatose son. Her mother-in-law enlists the help of a psychic to try to channel the spooks and demons to see what they want with her son and she reveals something incredible. She reveals that the family’s comatose son is capable of astral projecting himself, which is the process of having your astral body (spiritual) separate from your physical body and capable of traveling to realms outside our own. Because of this, their son’s astral body is lost and is being held hostage by a monster that wants his physical body, and the ghouls and apparitions are also fighting over who would assume his body.
I should mention the parents are named Josh and Renai, their son is named Dalton and the mother-in-law is Lorraine.
It’s a riveting plot that pays homage to Poltergeist, which has a very similar story structure: a young child is kidnapped by otherworldly beings and their parents must find a way to bring him or her back. But why does this movie stand out from the rest of the horror movies? It’s certainly not 100% original, but that’s just it… it takes an old idea and morphs it into something different. What made me so frightened was how the film was directed and how the sound elements played a huge part in the scare factor. In the old days, horror films used sound and anticipation to make the audience scared because they didn’t have the money or imagination to show what the monster looks like. Insidious is no exception because it perfectly uses high-stringed orchestral cues and booming sound effects to make the viewer jump out of their seat. A perfect example of this instance from the film is when Lorraine tells Josh and Renai that she has seen the monster as well and that intensified string movement is swelling, the camera zooms in on her, and you know something is going to happen… but it’s daylight. Then… BOOM!!!! You see the demon’s face hissing at her from behind Josh’s back. You jump back and you realize that it’s gone. Those brief scenes of terror with a drawn-out buildup pay tribute to the horror films of the 60s and 70s where sound elements are mixed to create sheer fright. The film is peppered with instances like this and despite knowing that something is going to happen, it seems to still catch you off guard.
Additionally, James Wan (there was a Q & A after the screening) sited that Carnival of Souls was a major inspiration for this film, in turn I thought the same way but I also felt like Kubrick’s The Shining was a heavy inspiration. What do both of these films have in common? They create a frightening, surreal, ominous atmosphere with very basic set pieces. Insidious does the very same thing. In order to retrieve his son from the demon, Josh must also venture into the other realm known as The Further to reclaim him but what does The Further look like. But what does The Further look like? Well, I don’t want to spoil it because it’s hard to describe the atmosphere but it’s darker, foggier and feels like a parallel universe. With the drastic color changes, the eerie sounds the way the ghouls walk around as though they are still living make for a very uncomfortable and spooky mood. I can’t tell you how many times I freaked out when I saw one of the ghoul families appear out of nowhere with a terrifying harlequin smile. It was as if these ghosts, or spirits, were playing out what they had done just before they died and then set their actions to repeat. It was very haunting and it put me right into the realm of the story.
Now what about the creature and ghoul design? Well, I think it’s important to note that there is no blood or gore in this movie, even though there is a scene that looks like blood… it’s not. The design and look of the demon (the thing that is holding the boy’s astral body hostage) is freaky, to say the least. It is tall, hoofed, has pointy ears and long metallic talons that it regularly sharpens. It looks just like an actual demon that you can find in Catholic and Christian artwork. It’s not heavily stylized however they do play him off to be a mask-maker, which I love because it gives us a look into its personality. It’s also a puppeteer, ironically. It’s also funny to note that the composer of the film plays the demon and the actor that played the little boy would cry on set because he was so scared of him. James Wan had to show the boy that it was all makeup to try and ease his fear. The ghouls, however, were typical ghouls ranging from an old woman (which was played by a man with a deep voice), to a bride, to a young woman, to psychopathic killer, to a little boy from the 1800s (named Tiny Tim). They were so beautifully and simply portrayed that the lack of any type of special makeup made them seem more grounded in surrealism.
I’d have to cut this off short because if I express how I truly love this film, it will end up being a two-parter post. During the Q&A, Wan told the audience that him and his partner-in-crime Leigh wanted to do a film that not only attributed haunted house films but also was a return to old-school horror. Hatchet marketed itself, as “old school horror” but wasn’t because it didn’t use the techniques. Insidious, however, used mood, atmosphere, performance and sound to its advantage to create a very brooding movie that is the definition of horror. I’m willing to say that this is Wan’s masterpiece film because it’s original and it’s truly scary… hell it’s better than Saw. It’s a film that I hope gains more recognition and sadly it’s one of the best horror films of the new millennium. Saw II was based off an unused haunted house screenplay that Wan wanted to write, and if Insidious was his unused script… than by God he made a haunted house movie. My friend saw it with me and he said a quote that typifies the entire movie-going experience for him and me. He goes, “there is only so much that I can take before I get a heart attack.” See Insidious. Support original indie horror.
Note: Watch this movie with the volume turned up and without any lights on.