Insidious is a rotten movie getting unaccountably good reviews in some quarters. For instance, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly says: “Insidious is a haunted-house movie that has some of the most shivery and indelible images I’ve seen in any horror film in decades. Yes, it’s that unsettling.”
Only it ain’t, though.
It’s one of those movies that relies on a surefire trick: a loud noise, BAM, accompanied by a gust of music SHREEEE, while a dark figure shoots out from the side in your peripheral vision and crosses the screen WHOOSH, so you jump. That’s called a “startle effect”—yeah, some cognitive film theorist actually named it, that’s why they pay him the big bucks—and the movie has about 75 of them. BAM, SHREEE, WHOOSH, over and over.
Of course, a lot of audiences like that sort of thing. Really young ones, mainly. That’s why those stupid Haunted Houses get set up every Halloween, always with the same trappings: dark rooms lit by phony candelabras, store-bought cobwebs, dry-ice smoke, family-massacre tableaux, overly made-up ghouls popping out of dark doorways grabbing at teenagers who yell “YAAAH!”
That’s the grand finale in Insidious, a cinematic version of one of those corny Halloween houses.
The movie starts obnoxiously with an overproduced title sequence announcing its ghostly intentions. Even the letters of the opening credit names are spooky, with a little white spirit of each name floating up and away. That didn’t bode well. It meant everything would be right up in our faces going “BOO!” and that’s not a good strategy with haunted house movies.
Quietly, boys—proceed quietly. But the combined forces of the Saw franchise, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, plus producer Oren Peli, the guy who did Paranormal Activity, had other ideas.
So they set up one of those agonizingly fake American families moving into a showplace of a house, where the big grandfather clock in the hall ticks so loudly and ominously (TICK! TOCK!) any sane person would say “What the hell is wrong with that clock? I can’t hear myself think!”
Generally in haunted house movies you start with either a wholesome family (Poltergeist) or a disturbed family (The Shining). Insidious tries to have it both ways, mildly hinting at pre-existing problems with the marriage of the lead couple (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson). He’s one of those arrested development cases, all joshy boyishness. Then, confusingly, he turns out to be a high school teacher who looks tweedy and downtrodden when sitting behind his desk at school. Somehow he makes so much money on his teacher salary he can support the whole family flock in high style, allowing his wife to “work on her music” at home. No wonder people think teachers are rolling in dough.
She’s one of those draggy, complaining wife-mother characters that’ve done so much to bring down the birth rate in America. Fortunately we don’t have to hear much of her lugubrious music being composed, because stuff starts happening. The usual boilerplate—objects moving, scratchy noises, muttering voices—except for one big exception, which is the oldest kid in the family doesn’t wake up one morning. He’s in a sort of undiagnosable coma, and periodically a sinister ghost-man is seen hanging around his bed, who looks like an aging rock star. That’s the last straw for the family, so they move AGAIN.
Hey, the dad’s a teacher! He can afford it!
But the ghosts come right along with the comatose boy, and start multiplying in numbers. Damn! It’s time to bring in a paranormal expert, played by Lin Shaye, who has to provide a lot of exposition about how things work on The Other Side, especially in “The Further” where the kid has gone. Someone will have to astral-travel to “The Further” to fight off demons and bring the kid home, and that’s how we wind up in the cheesy Halloween House.
Yeah, it’s really not good.
And it has all the annoying distractions of not-good movies; you start thinking about inconsequential things between “startle effects.” Like what a stupid name “The Further” is. Or why they called the movie Insidious when it isn’t. Or how Barbara Hershey, playing the mother-in-law, has had so much patchwork plastic surgery and botox that parts of her face move and parts don’t. Or how constantly referencing the few good haunted house movies (The Shining, The Haunting, The Innocents, parts of Poltergeist and Sixth Sense) is an unwise strategy in a not-good haunted house movie—it just reminds you how badly these guys have bungled it
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