I keep trying to like James Wan's work more than I do.
There are moments in his movies that scare the utter shit out of me. There are few people working in the genre today who can do the drawn out, tense silence and the sudden sharp shock as well as he can. He's also a master at creating deeply unsettling images that drill themselves deep into my skin. I lost a good hour of sleep last night around five AM envisioning the creepy grandma from Insidious lurking under my bed. I think he's got the chops and I like that he sticks with the genre.
Yet despite his chops, I can't really get behind his movies. The screenplays are full of unengaging characters, weird tonal shifts, and frustrating plot holes. As a purely visceral experience, the movies are fine. As stories, they tend to be lacking. I've seen most of his major films, but I usually check them out on DVD.
Still, this season has been very dry for this little horror enthusiast and the word of mouth around Insidious has been surprisingly positive. I watched the movie last night and I can honestly say that Insidious is my favorite James Wan movie.
Insidious tells the story of a family who move into a haunted house. After the eldest child falls into a mysterious coma, the family becomes the victim of terrible hauntings. They flee their new home, only to discover that the ghost has followed them. In desperation, they turn to a psychic with an odd connection to the family.
The general consensus among all the reviewers I've read is that Insidious attempts nothing original, but it does the classics with style and verve. There are a lot of glib people out there who are saying that this movie is an all-but-in-name remake of Poltergeist, which isn't entirely untrue. It follows a similar narrative structure, with a slow set-up that puts the family in danger and targets a child, followed by the introduction of some comedic ghost hunters and a wise psychic who helps the family get through it all.
Insidious, however, has teeth. Between the long, creepy shots of silence and isolation and the genuinely terrifying ghost scares, this movie scared the bejeezus out of me. This is gonna be one of those movies I come back to, but only in well-lit rooms. I especially liked the now-famous eerie old lady in black, which reminded me of a similar creepy creation in Wan's deeply flawed Dead Silence film.
The movie's one point of genuine originality is the hero's journey into the Further, a shadowy reflection of our world where doomed souls wander. As he searches for his son, the father sees enough ghastly tableaus to fuel a dozen different horror films. It reminded me of the doomed landscapes of White Wolf's Wraith: The Oblivion role playing game. I loved seeing the world from the ghost's perspective, and the chilling images still make my skin crawl. Really, I could have spent an entire movie exploring the Further and it stands as the highlight of the movie for me.
As much as I enjoyed Insidious, it suffered from a few problems. The first was that there are three very large tonal shifts in the movie. The movie starts as a very conventional haunted house story, moves into a VERY exposition-heavy ghost hunter bit, and ends as more of a fantasy film. Each transition is very jarring and a lot of character threads get lost in each jump (most of the family disappears from the narrative by the second act.)
Second, the lead characters aren't particularly likable. Haunted house movies always have one person who doubts and the audience surrogate goes through the frustration of trying to convince them. In Insidious, this scene comes after a huge chunk of exposition that any rational person would have had a difficult time swallowing. Suddenly I felt tremendous sympathy for the poor, beleaguered rationalist who doesn't automatically believe in unquiet spirits and faraway lands of the dead. It didn't help that the wife came off as self-indulgent and high strung.
Insidious ain't perfect. People ding it for being unambitious, the writing is inconsistent, and the characterization is bland. But it succeeds on craft alone. It's a genuinely scary movie, done with tremendous style on a limited budget, and it stayed with me long after the final credits finished. I am probably going to come back to it, and I recommend it for anyone who likes a solid haunted house movie as well as anyone who likes Alice In Wonderland stories of people exploring strange places.
Finally, you ever notice how Wan's movies always have incredibly dark endings? Granted horror isn't exactly an optimist's genre, but his movies always have a sharp kick at the end. If you want a nice little final scare, wait until after the credits end.