Stars: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye | Written by Leigh Whannell | Directed by James Wan
James Wan’s latest horror outing Insidious turns out to be a roller coaster of a film, which jumps from being a dread-filled fright fest to a farcical horror flick. The pairing of the co-creator of Saw and the producers from Paranormal Activity makes for a movie full of hair-raising spills which turns out to be a little over-the-top to warrant a re-watch.
The film begins with your typical Hollywood family that has recently moved to a huge suburban house and is unsure what to make of the creaking noises and staccato strings that accompany their every move. Rose Byrne, most noted for her performance in hit TV series Damages plays Renai, a highly-strung mother who’s confused when her son suddenly falls into a coma. Wan demonstrates his ability to keep you on the edge of your seat in the subsequent hour without opting for blood and guts. Insidious is a straight-up horror film. There are little CGI effects and it’s packed with jump scares that never feel forced or staged. Instead they are intricately played out to startling effect – Insidious is probably one of the scariest films I’ve seen in years.
As Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai begin to despair at the strange goings on that follow their ill son, they decide to call on a psychic to solve their problems. The introduction of Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) is accompanied by a comical pair of associates who look like they’ve stepped out of the Ghostbusters. From then on, the film continues to be sprinkled with a fair few comedy moments that I won’t spoil for you in this review. However, the laughs don’t detract from the horror as we begin to see more of the ghouls responsible for Daltons (Ty Simpkins) condition.
The visual style in the film is stripped down yet visceral – the decision not to use gore has meant that the make-up team appear to have gone to town in artistically daubing the ghosts that make up “the further” – they look like the characters that populate Bioshock. However, the tense climax of the film ends up showing less restraint and makes the fatal mistake that horror films often do – we see too much. Ghosts begin to swarm the screen, playing out what looks like Halloween at Madame Tussaud’s. Couple this with a supernatural theory behind the plot which is protracted in its explanation, and Wan ruins what could have been a cracking horror film.
Insidious is worth watching for the first hour, as it’s a master class in tense, understated scares. However, the conclusion descends into farce and shatters the carefully constructed atmosphere that was so painstakingly created on an impressively small budget.
INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2
Having watched what I guess we should now refer to as ‘Chapter 1’ prior to the screening of the Insidious sequel, I can confirm that as a franchise it’s not quite as edgy and gritty as its promotion would have you believe. There’s something quite hokey, kooky and actually quite endearing about the Insidious films which I don’t consider to be a bad thing. When your film’s knight in shining armour character is a kindly old lady, what more could you reasonably expect?
Despite the three year gap since the release of its predecessor, Insidious: Chapter 2 takes place very shortly after it chronologically. After the events of the first film, which saw Patrick Wilson travelling into a spirit realm to search for the soul of his comatose son (Ty Simpkins, who was also the kid in Iron Man 3) before nasty demons possessed his body (hell of a subordinate clause there), the Lambert family retreat to Pat’s mom (Barbara Hershey)’s house to recover from their ordeal. Unfortunately, Papa Patrick doesn’t seem quite the same after his experience and spooky crap keeps on happening. Can his wife (Rose Byrne, great as ever), mother, sons, a mysterious figure from his past (Steve Coulter) and those two funny ghostbusters from the previous film (Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson) figure out what’s going on in time to sort it all out?
What spooks and scares Insidious 2 has to offer generally come in the first half. There’s good use of a noisy children’s toy, a piano and the old ‘mysterious figure in shot for a second but then isn’t’ trick is done well too. However by the midway point, returning director James Wan gives up on slow-building tension and pretty much goes for a voyage into slightly silly fantasy, almost like a Scooby Doo ‘let’s split up and search for clues’ scenario crossed with The Twilight Zone. Which I enjoyed.
What’s quite pleasing is that Insidious: Chapter 2 throws a whole lot of different ideas into the mix and manages to come out not being a total mess. So you’ve got an interesting time-hopping narrative structure, some gender-bending intrigue, paedophobic elements, a dash of found footage, a sort of unsolved murder case plotline, a bit of offbeat comedy and a number of call-backs to the previous film (in an almost Back to the Future Part 2 sense) as well as some Paranormal Activity style jumps (as you might expect from producer Oren Peli). It’s nice to see a film that isn’t afraid to dabble with different bits and pieces and it’s a credit to Wan that’s mostly fairly coherent.
It’s encouraging too that the original cast has also returned for the sequel. Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson may not exactly be total A-listers, but their stock has only risen since the first film, so it’s nice that they’ve come back. Or at least fulfilled a contractual obligation in any case. The coda at the end of Insidious: Chapter 2 pretty much guarantees a third outing, though whether the two main leads will feature in that is open to debate.
Insidious: Chapter 2 stands out from most mainstream horror films in that it isn’t mean-spirited. It isn’t unnecessarily cruel to its cast and the reintroduction of one character in particular is actually quite joyful. It gives the whole cast plenty to do and doesn’t treat the audience like idiots. Sure, the scares may not last all the way through the film, but as I came out of the auditorium feeling generally positive and satisfied, I was able to forgive this.
The Insidious/Insidious: Chapter 2 Double Film Boxset will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from January 6th.