A Crash Course in Horror is a monthly column by our self-proclaimed horror movie noob, Noémi Pomerleau. She reviews a classic (or even “new classic”) horror movie from the viewpoint of someone who has never seen it (because, well, she hasn’t).
Spring is in full swing and it’s gorgeous outside. There’s no better way to incentivize going outdoors than watching a film where a house feels like a dangerous prison. Cue Insidious, a classic story about a possession gone wrong. But, really – when do they ever go right?
Insidious follows the Lambert family — Josh (Patrick Wilson), Renai (Rose Byrne) and their three kids — as they move into a new house. It doesn’t take long until they notice there’s something strange about the house. Objects move around on their own, doors open and close, and the attic is really creepy. Even more creepy than attics normally are.
Still, things seem pretty much fine until Dalton (Ty Simpkins), Renai and Josh’s oldest son, falls off a ladder in the attic. Though he doesn’t seem hurt at first, Dalton falls into a deep coma that defies all medical explanation. SPOILER ALERT: It’s ghosts. Ghosts are the problem.
The story carries on from there, but I was pleasantly surprised by how unpredictable it was. Insidious has a lot of ambition, and the twists and turns that it took were fun and keep you off-guard. While the film has a massive tone shift in its third act that might turn some viewers off, both portions of the film are successful in their own way. The screenplay relies heavily on horror tropes, which means nothing really feels unique, but it has a great ending and is a load of fun throughout.
It’s almost surprising that it’s so fun to watch, because most of the actors don’t seem to be having fun at all. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne deliver their lines with so little commitment that you can’t help wondering if Jack and Renai even want their son to wake up. Even though Renai spends most of the film facing genuinely terrifying things and crying and gasping in response, something about her tone rings false. In fact, it’s not until the change in tone that comes with the third act that the film introduces its most compelling characters: Specs, Tucker, and Elise.
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It could be that Byrne and Wilson just don’t have the ability to rise above the lackluster script. That would be understandable. The dialogue is cheesy, doesn’t feel natural, and characters’ reactions sometimes seem at odds with their personalities. It’s passable, but makes no efforts to be creative, preferring to leave that to the plot and visual design.
There’s a lot to love about the visuals in Insidious. The most striking visual cue is the way that director James Wan has chosen to indicate that the ghosts are nearby. Whenever Renai and Josh are about to find themselves haunted, the color slowly washes out of the scene. It happens gradually, so you don’t detect it until you know to look for it, but once the haunting starts you find yourself wondering when everything got so gray.
The design of the ghosts is wonderfully varied. They could look like ordinary humans or beasts from your darkest nightmares. One of them is even downright adorable! Yet they’re all introduced with a loud, discordant percussion noise which cuts into each scene sharply, enhancing the jump scare — so even the cutest among them seems startling.
The percussion noises of terror that enter with the ghosts are almost the only music in the whole film. Except when the action hits its peak, the film forgoes music entirely. Normally I appreciate the tension this builds, but jump scares aren’t really appealing to me. So while the cymbal crashes may have their intended effect, it wasn’t one I enjoyed. Your mileage may vary.
Insidious has a great vision, and in hindsight I really wish that I had seen it in time to try out the Insidious 3 Oculus Rift Experience (spoilers in that link!) that toured theatres last winter because Insidious’ visual style would fit very well in a horror game. I’m glad I watched the film, though, and I’ll absolutely be looking into its sequels, even though I hear they aren’t nearly as good.
But, even though I enjoyed it, would I say it was scary? …Not really. Insidious has a lot of great moments, but it waffles between cheesy and creepy so often that it feels hard to connect with the horror. While its ambition and concept are something to be admired, I wouldn’t recommend it to somebody looking for a good scare.
A Crash Course in Horror updates on every third Saturday of the month. The next update is due on June 18th! If you want to help pick the horror classic I review, just leave a comment below with your suggestion.