Good movies about ghosts tend to be subtle. The most memorable ghostly movies of the last fifteen years (Shyamalan’s SIXTH SENSE, Amenabar’s THE OTHERS and Juan Antonio Bayona’s THE ORPHANAGE) displayed tremendous skill in conjuring up the kind of delicate dread atmosphere needed to make the kind of stories they were telling succeed superbly. Going further back, movies generally regarded as classics (THE INNOCENTS, THE HAUNTING) employ similar carefully structured storytelling to draw the viewer in. We’re shortly promised THE WOMAN IN BLACK from Hammer, and THE AWAKENING from writer Stephen Volk, and very good the trailers for both of those look, too.
INSIDIOUS is also a movie about ghosts, and it’s a rattling good one, but rather than a gentle journey into the cobweb-enshrouded depths of the supernatural, it’s more a ghost train ride into hell, complete with things designed to make you jump at every opportunity. So, enthusiasts of supernatural subtlety be warned – this probably won’t be your cup of tea.
Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) move into their lovely new dark gloomy house with their three children. It’s not long before weird things start happening that culminate in their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falling from a ladder and ending up in a coma. Renai sees several spooky apparitions and the family move again, only for the manifestations to follow them. Cue the intervention of parapsychologist Lin Shaye and her comedy sidekicks Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson who determine that it’s not the house that’s haunted so much as the boy himself. Barbara Hershey, playing Josh’s mother and looking a good deal saner than in BLACK SWAN (thank heavens) has some secrets to reveal about her son’s past as well, and the stage is set for Josh to enter the astral plane to get his son back.
Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell’s love for the genre is obvious in interviews and thankfully it translates well to the screen. Images and sounds redolent of early twenties horrors like NOSFERATU and the films of Dario Argento mean they run the risk of criticism for being derivative but, in the same way that a good comedy just keeps at you with plenty of properly funny gags, they provide the viewer with so many well-executed scares that INSIDIOUS is very difficult not to like. Add in some very clever framing and all kinds of things happening that you really have to be paying attention to notice and it’s difficult to catch everything that’s going on in a single viewing. The music’s good too – a mixture of electronic sound effects reminiscent of those pioneered by Delia Derbyshire and her team for LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE and very scratchy violins. It’s not often the composer gets screen time in a movie (I can remember Jerry Goldsmith getting a cameo next to an ice cream machine in GREMLINS 2 but that’s about it) but here Joseph Bishara gets to play the ultimate nasty demon as well, and a fine job he does of it.
Wan and Whannell’s previous horror efforts received mixed reviews, with both getting more than their fare share of negative notices. I’m not afraid to admit that I loved SAW, and DEAD SILENCE, while flawed, was a genuine attempt at the kind of old fashioned horror film that you just don’t see anymore. With INSIDIOUS they’ve proven that they’re getting very good indeed at being very very scary and I very much hope they’ll decide to stay within the genre for at least another couple of films.