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DIRECTED BY: James Wan
PLOT: A young boy falls ill when he moves into a new house; mom is convinced the home is haunted, but when they relocate again, the kid doesn’t get better, and the apparitions get worse.
COMMENTS: Having launched the smash hit Saw franchise in 2004, director James Wan was still a somewhat hot name in horror in 2010, despite the fact that his intervening work had not been particularly successful. Producing independently, he once again teamed with scriptwriting partner Leigh Whannell for the haunted house flick Insidious, whose surprising box office receipts were hefty enough to launch a new four-film franchise[efn_note]Curiously, the second and fourth films in the franchise outgrossed the original.[/efn_note] and reignite his career.
Watching the film for the first time a decade after release, it’s difficult to see what the appeal was. It’s not that there’s anything really wrong with Insidious; it’s just not clear why it should succeed where so many interchangeable horrors lie forgotten. The premise is not particularly unique, there’s no breakout villain like Saw‘s Jigsaw, no special effects to speak of, no psychological subtext, nothing to tap into 2010’s zeitgeist, no killer nightmare scene that sticks in the memory. It is, in every aspect, an absolutely middle-of-the-road Hollywood-style spook show.
To its credit, Insidious leaves Saw’s torture and gore formula behind in favor of actual horror. Doors open on their own, there’s mysterious murmuring on the baby monitor, the burglar alarm goes off with no one around, and the frazzled mom sees shadow people lurking outside the window. But each decent directorial decision (a haunting use of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”) is counterbalanced by a poor one (no explanation for how the family affords a four-bedroom country estate and round-the-clock medical care on a high school teacher’s salary). The lighting drapes the spooky figures in just the right amount of obscuring shadow, and the other technical elements are professional. But the casting is ho-hum: Patrick Wilson is blah; Rose Byrne is fine, but doesn’t look much like a mom of three;is indisputably in the movie; makes for an OK psychic exorcist, but her character inevitably invites unfavorable comparisons to Poltergeist‘s Zelda Rubinstein (an obvious inspiration.) On the other hand, her two nerdy, squabbling comic-relief assistants worked well (and could have supported their own spin-off comedy film).
As far as weirdness goes, the case for Insidious is slim at best. It’s no stranger than any other ghost movie you’ve seen, and comes complete with the usual deflating supernatural explanations for everything that happens. The trip through the looking glass into the spirit realm (here called “the Further”) is well done and eerie, with damned souls endlessly re-enacting ancient tragedies, deaf and blind to the living walking among them. The big bad boss demon (also the film’s Tiny Tim fan) could have been majorly scary, if not for the fact that his design reminded everyone who saw him of a certain character from The Phantom Menace (thankfully, not Jar-Jar, although that would have been a bold choice). Insidious ends with a twist that surprised absolutely no one (and may have ruined the film for some people who were willing to give it a pass up to that point). None of this, good or bad, rises to the level of weird, in our judgement. It’s ultimately a film to take or leave, to enjoy well enough and forget about as soon as it’s over. At least it’s not torture porn.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“By the time the absurdly deflating finale rolls around, Wan has managed to not only botch his own film, but sully the one cool element of Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace as well.”–Nick Schaeger, Lessons of Darkness (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by Rick Yeoman, who asked, “Is Insidious included? Should be. At first the movie’s great, but when it reached the climax, I found it weird. I hate the twists. Not scary anymore. Ended up funny.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)