The writer and director of the original Saw and the producing team behind Paranormal Activity make strange bedfellows: in 2004, the former introduced the buckets-of-blood aesthetic that would define horror for the rest of the decade; the latter represent the most successful rejection of that trend, scaring audiences with little more than flickering shadows and rustling bed sheets. Their collaboration, Insidious, a traditional haunted house movie with contemporary twists, finds director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell longing to prove themselves, to evince their understanding of horror movie history, to demonstrate they are no mere fanboys but dedicated students of the genre—to rescue reputations sullied after seven Saws and infinite imitators.
To some extent, they succeed. Insidious is a formal tour-de-force, eschewing boo-moment bullshit for the hard work of generating bone-deep scares: a winding camera, false alarms, and moody music (composer Joseph Bishara’s amazing homage to Penderecki) help to build slowly an eerie atmosphere. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne play a white couple with 2.4 kids, overburdened and hardworking parents whose eldest son falls into a mysterious coma, and whose house throbs thereafter with weird, terrifying energies: it begins with books that were just placed on a shelf reappearing on the floor; it climaxes with a bloody claw print on comason’s bed sheets. Every step on the house’s old wooden boards prompts a tension-raising groan; the camera floats slowly around the house’s many corners, which we’re dying to get around. It’s suggestive, it’s masterfully withholding.
But to what end? The filmmakers cite Poltergeist as a major influence: Wilson passes nicely as an all-American type, heir to Craig T. Nelson, and the climax is set in a fog-shrouded extra-dimension borrowed unabashedly from the climax of Tobe Hooper’s movie. But without an Indian burial ground, or any sustained subtext, Wan and Whannell’s movie boasts none of the biting cultural critique that made Spielberg’s production a classic. (The family in that movie literally built their prosperity upon an unsound foundation of dead Indians!) Insidious‘ third act falls victim to bonkers exposition about astral projections, getting as lost in spiritual mumbo jumbo as its comatose child is in some fifth dimension. Even Paranormal Activity, of which this movie often feels like a budgeted remake, had something to say, about the childhood “demons” that haunt adult relationships. This movie’s themes are even more elemental—a son can only be rescued by his father; family-fracturing “ghosts of the past” want to conquer the present. But Wan and Whannell aren’t concerned with making these vague themes coalesce; they seem bored by larger meaning. They may be mavens of gooseflesh, but the team behind Saw still doesn’t possess a social consciousness. (Even Hostel sported Big Ideas!) Which is too bad, because it’s that which separates a capable horror movie from a great one.