Just as the young boy at the centre of Insidious is beset by evil spirits, so too is the film itself haunted by demons. There is a true greatness somewhere within in this movie, but every time it shows itself, it is whisked away by the dark forces of lacklustre direction, a reliance on cliches, and some truly woeful cinematography.
The good stuff first: for at least half of its running time, Insidious is a beautifully well paced chiller. It speedily sets up both its characters and its central plot point, but it does so while still giving us some time to get to know these people. Both Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson do very good work - they make the characters believable, which is no mean feat when the script later asks them to do and say some pretty unbelievable things.
Just as impressively, Insidious boasts an incredible score, composed by Joseph Bishara. It's a fantastic piece of work - both deeply grounded in the feel of horror movies from the 60's and 70's, yet entirely Bishara's own . Interestingly, Bishara also plays the demon antagonist of the movie, barely recognisable under all that great make up work.
The film does an admirable job of handling the weight of its own plot points, too - the way the young son slips into a 'coma' is treated with a real sense of tragedy. The reaction of the boy's parents - Byrne's desperation, and Wilson's determination to ignore the problem by staying late at work - is impressively true to reality. It gives the proceedings an added depth, rather than sweeping those pesky time consuming emotional responses under the carpet as many lesser horror flicks have done.
But the movie is undone by some awful set pieces. The film's 'seance scene' (although it isn't exactly that, you catch my drift) is a laughable attempt at horror. It isn't the vaguest bit scary, what with demons that look like bit players in a lo budget death metal music video, and all of the expert work the movie has done keeping its horrors in the shadows is thrown out of the window as demons start flinging the characters around the room as though they were paper dolls.
Even worse, although the film spends a lot of its running time establishing a truly inventive and memorable demon - the man with 'fire in his face' - it ruins all of his impact in the final few scenes.
For most of the film's running time, the demon is handled with the subtlety and weight that makes him a truly compelling antagonist. Then, right at the end, we get a scene of the malevolent force sitting in his 'lair', rocking out to Tiny Tim and sharpening his nails. No, seriously...sharpening his nails. Adding insult to injury, he's also seen staring through a giant magnifying glass so tacky it could have been stolen straight from Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland remake.
Just check out this ridiculous image, that comes in the film's denouement:
I mean, the guy looks like the cheapest of Freddy Krueger rip offs. By showing us the dude just, y'know, chilling out, James Wan immediately throws any suspense and horror out of the window. Compare that to this genuinely horrifying shot that comes from the first half of the movie, and you can see just how much wasted promise this film holds:
It's a shame, because although Wan might be a pretty mediocre director (I can't stand his reliance on overexposed film, and those dumb sped up action shots he carried over from his work on Saw) Leigh Whannell is clearly a talented screenwriter. In the hands of another filmmaker, Insidiuous might have become a horror classic, one to be carried down through the ages in the hands of the genre's many fans.
As it is, Insidious is a wasted opportunity. Even its final twist, which could have been a shocking, punch in the guts kind of ending, is instead over-explained and overemphasized until it becomes just another 'bad guys win' horror movie finale.
Some time next week, I'm going to be watching and reviewing Insidious 2 for the first time. I'm not dreading the experience - there's still more than enough good in the first instalment to make me look forward to it - I just hope that between the two movies Wan hired himself a good exorcist, and banished his demons.