The state of modern horror is far from healthy. It’s not even May and we can count on one hand the number of horror films released. Not only has 2011 been a slow year for Horror fans, those films that have been released are poor. I would stretch that statement further still and say that collectively speaking modern horror is in terrible condition and this is best expressed by that which is popular. The most successful exponents of the genre have been torture porn and found footage, with the success stories being Saw and Paranormal Activity. Ironically both these film series were produced or directed by the same people who made the latest horror to the see light of day Insidious – the first true horror film of 2011.
Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne), along with their three children move into a new home to start life afresh. Unfortunately there is something amiss with the house, things are moved and the family is suffering from the unnerving sensation that they are being watched, but they write it off and they continue to settle into their new home. One morning, a few days into their new life and their son, Dylan, cannot be woken up. Worried about this, Josh and Renai take their son to hospital where Dylan’s condition confuses the doctors as he is not in a coma, he is in perfect condition. Instead of being in a coma, Dylan cannot be woken. It’s a mystery why this is happening. Not only is Dylan dead to the world, he is being haunted by some rather malevolent beings.
As a genre picture, Insidious can be compared to Duncan Jones’ Sci-Fi opus Moon. It may be a strange comparison to make, but Moon was far from original, it used countless plot devices and references and formed them into a new beast. Insidious does the same for horror films, on the face of it’s about a haunted house, dig deeper however and you will see an amalgamation of The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist and Nightmare on Elm Street, along with a rather healthy nod to the zombie genre too. Despite all these references it never detracts from the enjoyment of the film, Insidious is a cine-literate joy in the same way that Moon was.
James Wan might not have created a film which could be described as original, but in Insidious he has created a film which succeeds where all of the other horrors of the year have failed. This isn’t just a scary film, it’s terrifying and it’s through the establishment of this world he has created a cinematic treat that is utterly captivating. This is achieved by ignoring the modern tropes of horror. The biggest way in which we depart from modern standards is through the lack of soundtrack scares. Sure, they are still there but instead of leading you into a corner before trying to make you jump, it uses a subtle and underplayed soundtrack to amplify the films more unnerving moments. Funnily enough, the same instrumentation announces the arrival of the title card.
Inside the constraints of the film however we find that the director has created one of those rare occasions where we have a horror film that is just as eager to develop an atmosphere as it is hunt for jumps. The colour of the film is bleached and the film only makes itself heard when it wants to announce the arrival of the film’s most grotesque characters. It’s through these means that the film has a very naturalistic vibe. There is a sense of normality which is established and invaded on innumerable occasions which collectively left me a bag of nerves. It’s through this unpredictability where the film excels.
The film takes breaks from the overwhelming atmosphere every now and again through comic relief. Others may welcome the break from the relentless, me on the other hand, I felt as if it unnecessarily distracts your attention. As a horror this is a terrifying experience, and for it to be terrifying that has to mean that you are completely enthralled by what’s going on on-screen and when the two men who accompany the films source of exposition (in Elise Lin Shaye) they do their best to the dilute the experience. I may have occasionally laughed at their exploits but the truth remains that these two were unwanted elements of the film. Even without their inclusion the film has a strong enough sense of humour even in the face of the horrific so as to not take itself too seriously. Without these sporadic moments, I fear this would have been an unbearable watch during the middle third and climax.
The occasions where the film strays from the path hand in hand with the idiotic distractions are infrequent so they aren’t enough to damage the experience. When the film returned to its intended path we become victim to the uncertain. The scares that follow come from a sea of horrid in the varying shape of large wandering man and a small, laughing child. Don’t let the descriptions distract you – none of the apparitions are anything less than terrifying. The biggest scares come when the soundtrack comes to the foreground to accompany the arrival of a monster. The soundtrack in question varies between cracking class and sharp strong bursts of a violin, like Psycho turned up to 11. This monster may look like Darth Maul’s creepy uncle, but when his arrival is so sudden and with such a lack of pretentiousness he made me jump more times than I would care to mention.
In Insidious there has been a bench mark set for 2011’s Horror films. The exposition and elaboration might dilute the scares a little, but this is still a brilliant film that is evocative of the golden era of American Horror in the 1970s. This is a well acted and pure expression of on screen terror even with the dubious closing scene. Watch it.