SXSW Review: ‘Insidious’

By  · Published on March 14th, 2011

When Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) move into a new house with their three children, they see it as an opportunity for the life they always wanted. Renai can get back to writing music and be a full-time mom for her family, and the kids have all the space they could ever want. Unfortunately, some of that space appears to be occupied by malevolent ghosts. What do they want? How can this family rid themselves of their worst nightmare? Why does that ghost look like Darth Maul?

On the one hand, writer Leigh Whannell and director James Wan have given us a solid film with some remarkably unsettling imagery sure to haunt the nightmares of even the most jaded horrorphiles. On the flip side, they have given us one of the loudest, most obnoxiously lazy horror films in years. This paradox eats at me as I desperately wanted to like Insidious and frankly the potential it displays alludes to a film that could have easily made my list of favorites of the year. Sadly, that potential is squandered in cheap thrills and hackneyed conventions.

Seriously, horror filmmakers: put a moratorium on jump scares. I know everyone and their brother is using jump scares as a counterattack against increasingly desensitized audiences, but it’s time to give up the ghost (pun only slightly intended). I got sick and tired of something popping up like Jack-in-the-Box every five seconds obscuring my vision from the much more interesting, and far scarier, story going on behind it. Jump scares are the junk food of horror films – providing only superficial and extremely temporary sensory nourishment. Soon enough, your brain is hungry again for that fear response and jump scares are about as substantial as eating a box of Twinkies on Thanksgiving Day.

When you watch the Oscars and the category of Achievement in Sound Mixing comes up (you know, when you normally make a trip to the bathroom), you may ponder on the value of a film’s sound mixer or sound designer. Five minutes into Insidious, you will understand the dire necessity of these artists if only by virtue of the fact that we’re subjected to their spectacular failures for 90 minutes. Every apparition carries with it its own deafening shriek and every jump scare is heralded with an explosion of disharmonious (read: eardrum-shredding) violins. It seems to be operating under the same delusion as Drag Me to Hell that loud = scary. But, along with jump scares, incessant loud noises are the charlatans of fright. We are not infants, so please refrain from resorting to the same tactics that terrify barely cognitive life forms.

The story itself is incredibly strong and manages to seamlessly blend fascinating sci-fi concepts into a haunted house film. However, the composition of the script is uneven and clunky. You’ll recognize the conventions immediately: the children are the first to see the ghosts, the medium is called in to help, and a wedge is driven – at least temporarily – between the husband and wife because he doesn’t believe her. But where the script falters is that the progression doesn’t naturally rise, and, in fact, events that should incite more reaction from the characters are dismissed while subsequent events carrying less impact are assigned the “final straw” distinction that forces the characters to move out of the house. In other words, seeing a ghost in the window is something we can ignore, but the front door opens by itself? Time to go!

There is some truly frightening stuff in Insidious that, if you can get past the gimmicky veneer, is intensely effective. The séance scene is dark and sinister, and the scene wherein the monster stands in the corner — just standing mind you, not jumping out at us — sent chills up and down the spine. There is a shot of a little ghost boy who is standing in the periphery and not noticed by the character, not flagged by clangs and shrieks, that stops your heart for a moment.

The Upside: All in all I think it’s a good horror film impeded by its own too-slick packaging that otherwise would have crossed into greatness territory.

The Downside: Too. Many. JUMP. Scares.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.