Insidious (and prequel)

(Judge Dredd Megazine, Rebellion)

Insidious is from both the director and the writer of Saw, but don’t be misled. It’s a “things go bump in the night” affair with barely a drop of blood (although the one exception is very effective; a bloody handprint on a child’s bedsheet). The main gimmick is actually an anti-gimmick; doing away with the surveillance cameras, webcams and shakycams that have been standard issue for ghost films since Blair Witch Project.

There’s another surburban family, with a young husband and wife (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) and their three kids. Installed in a new house, the family is subject to a few low-key events, before something far graver happens – a kid goes into an inexplicable coma. After this, the menace steps up, with threatening faces behind curtains and shadows behind windows. Midway through, though, the tone suddenly swings as ghosthunters show up to probe the shadows, bickering and sniping at each other as they go.

The film, in fact, is genuinely humorous, especially compared to Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity, with deliberately overcooked “scare” music and atmospherics. Given that it’s basically a game of “Boo!,” it’s just self-conscious enough not to come over as snarky self-parody. On the other hand, it has nothing new to offer, and you’d have strong déjà vu even if the last film you saw was Poltergeist. The climax, which tips into shadow-realm fantasy, reminded me of The Dark, a risible but rather enjoyable 2005 British film with Sean Bean. Insidious is fine if you’re not bored with recent screen spookery; otherwise, pass.

(c) 2018 Rebellion A/S. Reprinted with permission.

(I also reviewed the prequel, Insidious: Chapter 3, for the BFI’s Sight & Sound Magazine – including major spoilers for the first and second films.)

Insidious: Chapter 3 turns out to be a surprisingly good horror sequel and the most satisfying of the series so far. With the overly protracted storyline of the earlier films wrapped up in part two, the new film is a prequel, despite its misleading title. It serves up a different haunting, this time centred on a poignantly troubled teenage girl; and it also brings back (or introduces, chronologically speaking), Elise, the heroic psychic ghost-hunter played by Lin Shaye. Followers of the series have already seen the character killed off in the first Insidious (2010), then return as a ghost in Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013). The prequel presents an Elise who’s still alive, but obsessed by mortality due to her husband’s suicide and her foreknowledge of her own doom.

The first scene is uncharacteristically low-key for a teen-horror film, and yet compellingly intense. The haggard, housebound Elise – very different from the strong character we remember – is visited by the haunted girl, Quinn (Stefanie Scott), who vainly begs Elise to help her contact her late mother. The static meeting is played admirably straight, led not by tricksy camerawork but by the performers taking the supernatural framework with complete – and emotionally painful – seriousness.

Soon after Quinn is struck down by a car (a genuine shock moment) and spends the rest of the film trapped in her bed or her wheelchair, tormented by a figure in a breathing mask which leaves slimy footprints on floors and walls. The ghost is handled with the playfulness we expect. Like many of its ilk, it performs like a stand-up comic, relying on timing and misdirection. Its routines are familiar but mostly pleasing, injecting life into standbys such as knocking on a wall or prowling round Quinn’s oversized bed, while the petrified girl cowers underneath. Amusingly, the ghost deliberately closes a glowing computer screen, just to cut off a light source which might spoil the horror mood.

Nonetheless, the film is often sombre, paralleling Quinn’s and Elise’s grief and isolation, with both women shut in rooms and surrounded by shadows. Quinn’s harried father and her would-be boyfriend are so ineffectual that the ghost doesn’t even bother going after them as a means of getting at Quinn. When the father raises the subject of the boy, her good-looking daughter says acidly that any guy who sees her falls in ‘love’ with her, “especially as I’m a cripple now.”

The geeky male spookhunters from the previous films, played by Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell, eventually show up. Their entrance in the first film disrupted the tone; here, their expected arrival comes as a relief. However, we realise that they haven’t met Elise yet, and without her, both men are just frauds. It takes an all-woman force to combat the evil; the battle includes a crowdpleasing fight for Elise in the darkened world of the dead, which gives the psychic (and the audience) a pre-emptive kickass revenge on the monster which killed her in the first Insidious.

Such cunning continuity was a feature of the grislier Saw horror series, driven by the interplay of plotlines in different timeframes. Leigh Whannell wrote the first three Saws, as well as the first two Insidious films. Insidious: Chapter 3 marks Whannell’s director debut, taking over the series from his frequent collaborator James Wan, who helmed the recent Furious 7. Overall, Whannell strikes a good balance between emotionally interesting, performance-led drama, and the more mechanical demands of a ghost-train Hollywood franchise.

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