Insidious has a lot to answer for. At least, that’s what some horror fans would have you believe.
For many, Insidious was the death of interesting horror movies for a time, replacing them with jump-scare garbage that has no rewatch value but endless grinding franchise potential. I covered this in my article on the Conjuring Universe: my opinion – that it’s more the money men and women of Hollywood, looking at the box office receipts and greenlighting crap imitations to trick audiences out of their money – has not changed, but unlike The Conjuring, the Insidious franchise can’t fully defend itself against this claim thanks to a string of diminishing sequels.
Let’s start with the good stuff: the first Insidious directed by James Wan and written by Leigh Whannell. The duo made it big with the first (and second best) movie in the Saw franchise, creating a pattern that they would repeat throughout their careers: turning in effective cheap horror that makes shitloads of cash. Insidious was the confirmation of this skill, as it was easily one of the most profitable movies of 2010, and by far and away one of the most profitable horrors of the nascent decade.
I was a different man in 2010, a man who was so shit-scared of most horror movies I avoided them like I now avoid anything to do with The Walking Dead. But, even so – Insidious was a movie I couldn’t ignore, with literally everyone in my college media class telling me it was the scariest movie they had ever seen. I decided to give it a go – well, eventually, two years, later in the middle of a bright sunny day in my mum”s house. She was at work but I would be protected by my cats. It took me two shots to finish it, with a forced intermission as I pep-talked myself by saying “it’s only a movie” over and over again. I liked the movie, it was appropriately scary and I thought at the time that it was a masterstroke casting Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson as the Lamberts.
Seven years later and I see Insidious for what it is: a horror movie for people who don’t usually watch horror movies. That’s why it was so effective the first time I watched it. Being more experienced with the genre now, I appreciate Insidious for what it brought to the horror genre. Before its release we were drowning in a million found-footage atrocities and senseless torture porn. Insidious catered to what I enjoy in a horror movie: mystery, sympathetic characters, defined rules, and the threat tied to a strong theme. Basically, I’ll take a creak on the stairs over shaky-cam and dismembered limbs even to this day.
Insidious is an important movie, a 21st century version of Poltergesit but meaner and leaner. It popularized what would become the Blumhouse style in which interesting stories would be made cheaply with character actors. A notable example (and a far superior movie in my opinion) is Scott Derrickson’s Sinister.
It couldn’t last though, as, like every popular original horror movie that has the slightest franchise potential, Insidious was quickly run into the ground. The second movie is easily the strongest of the sequels, but that’s not saying much. Everything that felt fresh in the first movie feels tired here, though the main villain does have an appropriately horrible backstory. Focusing again on the Lamberts, and tying needless threads together, shows how limited all of these tricks become through repetition.
The third and fourth movies fare no better. Insidious 3 and The Last Key must deal with Whannell’s biggest mistake: killing psychic Elise Rainier (the brilliant Lin Shaye) at the end of the first movie. This means that the third and fourth movies are prequels that serve as ticking narrative boxes instead of standing on their own – a terrific opportunity missed, because, in the right hands, Elise and her sidekicks Steven and Tucker, could have carried the series in a number of new directions.
The takeaway from watching the Insidious movies is that the greedy Hollywood beast is as hungry as ever. The first movie is a classic, and the rest try to cannibalize it over and over again. This is what still happens when Hollywood gets a hit. Sinister 2 was awful, too.
By Kevin Boyle
Header image: IndieWire