It's one of the underappreciated privileges of life to admit that one was wrong, which is why I am absolutely delighted to tip my hat to director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell, best known for creating the infamous Saw, and confess my admiration for their newest collaboration, words that I never would have guessed myself capable of forming. The film in question is Insidious, a pretty damn good haunted house picture - not hardly up to the level of The Haunting, of course (the standard-bearer of that subgenre for nearly half a century), nor its most obvious inspiration, Poltergeist, but it gets the job done all right, throwing impeccably-constructed jump scares at the audience in a nearly constant stream, perching with one foot in grave sincerity in the other in jolly kitschiness, and generally being about as much of a gas to watch as any horror movie in ages, right up until the point where the Plot Explaining Wizard, in the form of a spiritualist/exorcist, comes and takes away all the mystery of the film and replaces it with a somewhat too-obvious description of the hows and whats of the story so far.

But that's quite a long way from an opening that's too grandly campy, too willfully overbaked, too robust for it to not strike at least a little bit. I'm not talking about the opening of the plot, mind; I'm talking about the damn credits sequence, in which chilly black and white shots of the interior of a house, looking moody and scary enough on their own, are given just that little extra noodge by one element, in every shot, of something paranormal. A distorted face reflected in a window, a chair sliding out by itself, that sort of thing. Coupled with scraping, Halloweenish strings on the soundtrack (Joseph Bishara, the composer, deserves some kind of award for synthesising every single clichΓ© of horror movie scores into one whole that manages to seem completely new and perfect), and especially scraping strings that perfectly mimic they cackle of a witch in a '30s cartoon, we've got something that is straight-faced as hell, and yet sort of gaudy and silly, too; all of it culminating in a shot of a hanging light fixture over which James Wan's name is super-imposed, as the whole image turns 180ΒΊ - a lot of effort for something that's kind of goofy. Just to make sure we get the tone, it's helped by the treatment of the title in huge red lettering in the "gates of Hell" font, as Bishara's strings have an aneurysm.

It's not the case that Wan and Whannell and co. are telling a joke. Insidious means everything, but its scares are of such a proudly old-fashioned variety, so implacably PG-13 in their execution, that it's the kind of scary that's fun rather than scary. It is the horror of William Castle to a kid in the '60s, or Sam Raimi to an adult in the '80s; it strikes me, more than anything, as the cinematic equivalent of the Haunted Mansion ride at the Disney theme parks, so absolutely sincere that it starts to feel like a massively dry joke. This is what happens when you play tropes completely straight that have been well-worn since the first decade of sound cinema, but what the hell, Insidious has more and better jump scares than anything trendier or more violent or nastier has in ages.

Anyway, the film: the Lamberts, Josh (Patrick Wilson), a teacher, and Renai (Rose Byrne) - yes, spelled that way - a songwriter, have just bought a new house, with their (twin?) sons Dalton (Ty Simpkins) and Foster (Andrew Astor), and a newborn baby girl. Something is Not Right in the house; books fall off shelves, boxes move from room to room, and one evening, Dalton hears a noise while he's playing (against the rules), in the attic. He doesn't share this fact with his parents, and doesn't get a chance to: the next morning, he enters into a non-coma state that looks a lot like a coma. Months pass, and Renai starts to notice what can only be called ghosts, and then the most shocking thing in a horror movie in years happens:

The Lamberts, confronted with a paranormal threat they cannot explain or fight, move out of the house.

Honestly, Insidious might not have to do anything else to capture my respect than to present its grown-up protagonists behaving the way that sensible grown-ups would in a like situation. Of course, it turns out that the ghosts follow them - boring, short movie otherwise - so Josh's mother (Barbara Hershey) suggests they hire her old friend, the spiritualist Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), to do a read of the house. You know what happens next? This is crazy. Josh doesn't buy into this mumbo-jumbo, but then - when confronted with evidence that cannot be otherwise explained - he admits that he was probably wrong and changes his behavior accordingly.

Seriously, I don't think I've seen a horror movie since The Descent where the people behaved so uncommonly like people.

The last two-fifths or so of Insidious consist of Elise's attempts to save the Lamberts and especially Dalton, who has become a beacon for angry paranormal beasties, are not as good, by a fairly large order of magnitude, as the first three-fifths, which consist of a bunch of variations on "Renai is alone. The baby cries. Renai goes to investigate. She sees movement that should not be there. She looks clos- JESUS WHAT THE FUCK." This is repetitive, and a bit reminiscent of Paranormal Activity, the superlative horror film directed a few years ago by Insidious producer Oren Peli, but it works at creating a damn nice feeling of the creeps, primarily because Wan and cinematographers David M. Brewer and John R. Leonetti do a fantastic job of bathing the Lamberts' two homes in such icy gloom, trumping up the dark wood and underlit corners so egregiously that it would be corny if it didn't' create such a forbidding atmosphere. Byrne also does a heck of a good job looking confused and scared and then crying at Patrick Wilson; and always, those strings are noodling away grimly.

It feels like an hour of the handful of good parts of Wan & Whannell's last collaboration, Dead Silence (and shares with that film an absolute, overwhelming fear of old women), proving that all the evidence of that film and Saw aside, Wan actually knows quite a lot about pacing a shock: set up a frame so that we just know what's coming, make us wait, don't show the scare, we get confused and let down, throw the scare in. It works every single damn time; at least it did in the theater where I saw the film, in which about every 8 minutes the same two-third of the audience would scream and then giggle at having been exquisitely played in the same way yet again. Maybe it's the PG-13 thing; unlike a lot of horror subgenres, ghost stories gain more than they lose from the absence of explicit gore, and Wan - present at the birth of the torture porn film, for god's sake - has to be a great deal more disciplined here than ever before: the result is a perfectly amazing piece of craftsmanship that reinvents no wheels at all but lingers with great enthusiasm and pride over the perfect smoothness and sleekness of the wheel it has turned out.

That holds true even when the story takes a bend for the worse: it's still an effective scary movie, though it becomes increasingly shambling as a narrative. The problems range from the overwhelming (the uncanny is effective, the canny is not, so explanations always take the piss out of horror films; that's maybe part of why The Haunting, which ends without explaining much of anything, is so damn good), to the particular (the chief evil beastie looks far too much like Darth Maul once we get a good look at him, though in quarter-second flashes, he's terrifying), to the ubiquitous: Elise's lackeys, played by Whannell himself and Angus Sampson, are the worst sort of comic relief, bumbling and stupid and completely ruining every moment they're in save one. And the conceptual: the film ends by heading into The Further, a sort of combination afterlife and spiritual alternative plane (this spoils nothing; The Further was the film's original title), which is, I guess, okay on the face of it, but the execution of The Further is rather more odd than anything else all diffuse lighting and stately shadows that are not nearly as effective as the more earthly gloom of the rest of the movie (though even here, Wan gets a few good images in: one of a dead girl grinning madly is as unmanning as anything in the film).

Insidious is not unendingly great; but it is a pretty nifty ghost movie, which counts for a whole lot to some of us. Not as epochally scary as Paranormal Activity, it nevertheless is the delicious kind of creepy that makes for a great night at the movies if you're into that sort of thing, more than I expect to see again this year - probably next year, too - and it fully lives up to the actual meaning of its title (which seems to have been misunderstood by the filmmakers as a synonym for "evil"): gradual, stealthy, and treacherous. In a world of geysers of blood and loud bangs and jump cuts standing in for cinematic horror, that kind of crawling, slow burn is the most welcome thing imaginable.

Reviews in this series
Insidious (Wan, 2010)
Insidious: Chapter 2 (Wan, 2013)
Insidious: Chapter 3 (Whannell, 2015)
Insidious: The Last Key (Robitel, 2018)