Ghost stories are timeless. And so are haunted house stories. They’re embedded into our history and our DNA. That melding of those two subgenres of the scary tale or even the scary movie reveals something about our personal domestic fears. You would think that the two would get old and that that they’d die out, but they still haven’t. Whether it’s Paranormal Activity or the excellent Insidious, we still find ourselves fascinated with something so timeless.
Insidious is an interesting case. Directed and written by James Wan, the creator of Saw (he should have never turned it into a damn franchise); the movie is set in a new house with Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, and their kids slowly experiencing strange things around the house. Is this typical of a movie like this? Totally. It’s highly traditional. But the dependency that the film places on its sound design and visual design is integral and well used. The subtle noises and scratches coming from upstairs, the muted color palette and camera tricks which are fairly “old school” – they’re all used to the hilt.
This kind of suspense is rare, when at every turn you see either torture porn, lousy reboots or remakes, or boring and plodding retreads on old material. The suspense created here is real. It’s frightening. Eventually, Wilson and Byrne’s son is put into a “coma” (for an inexplicable reason), but the strange things keep happening. They decide to move back into their old house. All seems fine at first (you can tell because the pallet become colorful and saturated!), but the specters must have followed them!
That’s the first half. It’s a brilliant, scary, and extremely well-paced first half. The second half isn’t bad per se, but it’s so drastically different in tone it feels like it’s a completely different film. It’s as if the tone and style comes out of left field. It adds a very Exorcist-like element, in which the demons that are trying to possess their child must be stopped, etc. etc. It’s still “good but it’s not great. It becomes unbelievable and insanely strange. The switch in tone is admittedly a bit jarring. But, in a way, it’s understandable. It’s hard to follow up a first act so great with a second one that’s just as good.
It’s not the acting here that matters. It’s the atmosphere. The atmospheric tone, the creepiness, to sheer suspense and fear make the film what it is. The first half of the film is one of the best scary movies I’ve seen in ages. It may be the same ground that’s been explored before, but it’s been done with such panache that it seems almost entirely new. In the end it’s a fantastically frightening movie, fun and filled with fear. Vampires may come and go and werewolves may be a fad for a year or two, but ghost and the haunted house will never disappear.