SOME MOVIES YOU’LL ALWAYS REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME YOU SAW THEM.
Main Cast: Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne
Director: James Wan
On a list of 73 horror movies released in 2010, half a dozen of those were worth remembering, but only one of them became an instant classic. Six years prior, the Australian duo of James Wan and Leigh Whannell created another classic that went on to usher in a new era of horror with SAW. But it was Insidious that really cemented the team’s place in the horror genre.
Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson, The Conjuring, and Rose Byrne, Bridesmaids) have just moved into a sweet new house on Josh’s teacher’s salary while Renai stays home with their three children (Dalton, Foster, and Kali) to work on her music. I’m immediately all in with these characters. They are clearly devoted to each other and trying to make the best of a hectic situation. Not to mention Wilson and Byrne are an impossibly pretty couple and dammit you want them to succeed at life.
But soon–there’s always a “but soon”–their idyllic life is interrupted when Dalton doesn’t wake up for school one morning. And doctors can’t find anything wrong with him.
We jump ahead three months and this is the new existence for the Lamberts. Dalton is in a hospital bed in his room, hooked up to monitors, tended to by a nurse, and being fed through a tube. But that’s not the bad part. Renai is hearing noises throughout the house, evil voices over the baby monitor, things are getting moved from where they should be, the front door is opening on its own. Foster, the middle child, asks one night if he can change rooms because he doesn’t like it when Dalton walks around.
Josh and Renai are finding themselves drifting apart as Josh is working later than necessary to avoid being in the house, and then sleeping on the couch when he is there, but Renai pleads for his help. Finally, after another round of late night frights, he agrees to a move.
And this is where Insidious sets itself apart. They do the thing you never see in haunted house movies, they get the F out.
But the new mood is short-lived as, on their first day in the new house, Renai experiences what is easily one of the creepiest and well-executed ghost scenes filmed in the last 20 years. But it takes Josh’s mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey, The Entity), to convince Josh he needs to seek outside help.
Enter Elise, Specs, and Tucker (Lin Shaye, A Nightmare on Elm Street–Leigh Whannell, Saw–Angus Sampson, Mad Max: Fury Road). Elise is a psychic and she gives the Lamberts the one piece of the puzzle they needed: it’s not the house that’s haunted, it’s Dalton.
I’ll stop here because I really could just keep going and spill the entire plot. And while some think the film takes an unnecessary turn in act 3, I think it takes exactly the right turn and ensures Insidious is more than just another ghost story.
For the team of Wan and Whannell, SAW was just a foot in the door – it was Insidious that cemented their place as horror icons. Three years later, Wan would return with The Conjuring, a movie that has since spawned an entire universe of interconnected movies referred as The Waniverse.
But it was Insidious that established these two as more than the godfathers of the torture porn genre. With this movie, they showed that their understanding of horror and what makes it work is spot-on, while also forcing the genre to mature by creating characters who make the logical choices we wish other characters would make.
The Lamberts are people I believe in, and their reactions are the reactions I would expect someone in a real life situation to make. Another mark in this movie’s favor, the jump scares work because they’re a result of actual scares that come with consequences. No loud noises for no reason at all or stray cats leaping out of closed closet doors–how the hell do horror movie cats keep getting themselves locked in pantries and closets???
There’s a logic to this plot, seeds planted early on that come to fruition later, like Josh’s lack of childhood photos, or the drawings on Dalton’s bedroom wall (okay, I will admit this is a sticking point for me. While I appreciate the internal logic of the drawings, I find it hard to believe, with everything they’ve gone through up to that point in the movie, including moving from one house to another, setting up Dalton’s room, decorating it with things on the walls, that not once did Josh see a particular picture and think it looked awful familiar?!??!), and the voices we hear over the baby monitor and what they mean.
And speaking of sound, I have to give much credit to the sound department and the score by Joseph Bishara, The Gravedancers, who did double duty in this movie by also playing the Lipstick Demon. With minimal instruments–mostly a whole ton of violins–Bishara has created an iconic soundtrack that has been copied by dozens of horror movies since.
And while we’re giving credit to people behind the scenes, David M. Brewer (Lake Eerie) and John R. Leonetti (Mortal Kombat) as Directors of Photography. The cinematography in this movie is gorgeous. Nothing in 2010 looked like this movie and, as with the score, since it came out, lots of them have tried to copy the look, most of them unsuccessfully. The colors here are rich and inviting, and the use of light and shadow perfectly captures the mood of every shot. If this movie had the worst plot, writing and acting around, I could still enjoy watching it with the sound off, just to gaze at that beauty on the screen.
In a year when the other biggest horror movies were sequels (Paranormal Activity 2, Resident Evil: Afterlife) and remakes (The Crazies, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Wolfman), Insidious not only stood out from the crowd, it reinvigorated a tired genre and reminded audiences that horror thrives and that it was still possible to leave a theater and want to sleep with your lights on that night.
I would watch this movie a ten times in a row and still probably find new things just out of focus in the background that hinted at what was to come for the Lamberts and anyone without their sphere. This is excellent work by an incredible horror duo.
C. Dennis Moore is the author of over 60 published short stories and novellas in the speculative fiction genre. Most recent appearances were in the Dark Highlands 2, What Fears Become, Dead Bait 3 and Dark Highways anthologies. His novels are Revelations, and the Angel Hill stories, The Man in the Window, The Third Floor, The Ghosts of Mertland and The Flip. He is writing another Angel Hill novel called Return to Angel Hill with co-author David Bain.