*. Of course a wholly original genre film is an impossibility, if not a contradiction in terms. Genre means following certain conventions, and there are only so many different stories to tell.
*. That said, Insidious is such a blatant copying of Poltergeist it should have been the “official” remake. The same family in a house where strange things keep happening. A child transported to another, spectral dimension. A team of psychic researchers with all the latest ghost-detecting equipment brought in to help locate the child. A séance. “Follow my voice!” instead of “Walk toward the light!” And so it goes.
*. The project comes to us from the Saw Boys: director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell (who also plays “Specs”). It’s funny listening to Whannell talking about the film in the featurette included with the DVD. Apparently he thought the concept was really original because it featured “an idea they’d never seen in horror films before.” That idea being astral projection. Uh-huh.
*. Whannell says some other funny stuff too. He claims that a decision was made not to have any “jump scares.” This surprised me, as Insidious is full of jump scares. But Whannell defines a jump scare as a fake scare, like a cat jumping out at you when you think it’s going to be a ghost. So because we have actual ghosts jumping out at different times these aren’t jump scares because they’re real.
*. Another funny point comes when Whannell talks about the séance scene. He knew that such a scene was a stale convention and so had to think hard of a way to spice it up. His idea was to have the medium wearing a First World War gas mask while she’s contacting the other side (or “the Further” as it’s called here). Why does she wear a gas mask? I have no idea. It does look odd, but that’s about all I can say for it. Alas, it was the best Whannell could come up with.
*. The rest of it is just as silly. The expert ghostbuster Elise (Lin Shaye) is fully of lines that you don’t want to think about too much. Is the universe deathless because it has no finite self and so remains infinite? Or is that just gobbledygook? I vote for gobbledygook.
*. I also wonder how it is that these experts know so damn much. For example, she tells Renai that she can’t wake her astrally-projecting husband Josh up from his trance after he finds their missing child Dalton because “he [Josh] has to find us.” Why? How would Elise know that? And why does it later work for Renai to call out to Josh? Just because. Just because.
*. As has become standard, a priest shows up and then leaves right away. This isn’t a job for him (the same thing happened in Paranormal Activity, and the distinction between ghosts and demons is cribbed directly from that film). In today’s horror the devil is real but God is dead. The family’s only hope will be to call in the ghostbusters. Yelling out “Leave this vessel!” is more efficacious than “The power of Christ compels you!”
*. Also standard to the genre is a stupid twist at the end. Except that it’s not quite the dark ending of Paranormal Activity, Sinister or The Witch, but basically just something tacked on to keep the door open for a sequel. I found it annoying.
*. About the only thing I enjoyed here was the camp music-hall demon, played by score composer Joseph Bishara, whose pounding violins help wake us up whenever we start to get too bored of the frankly rather dull family. It’s hard not to like a villain made up like Darth Maul in goat leggings who likes to listen to “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” on his gramophone. Though in the final analysis, he’s not much of a threat to anyone.
*. The final point Insidious shares in common with its contemporary horror franchise fellows from this period is the ridiculous return on investment. At a budget of $1.5 million it took in nearly $100 million in box office. That’s profitable even using Hollywood accounting. So it became a series. A pointless one, in my opinion. I’m really not sure why audiences had such a taste for this kind of thing. About the best I can say for it is that it’s a better remake of Poltergeist than the remake of Poltergeist.