Watching Insidious is like witnessing a thesis on the progression of horror cinema through to the present day. It starts as a classic minimalist ghost story, moves through the horror/comedy phase of the 80s and 90s and winds up in the ineffectual show-everything style of the modern horror flick.
It's uncertain if it was the intention of director, James Wan, to illustrate the evolution of cinematic horror but it nevertheless serves to drive home the point that the minimalist horror of old is so much scarier than the insipid tripe which is dished up to the multiplexes today (contemporary European and Asian genre films notwithstanding).
The terrorific beauty of the classic horror show is encapsulated in the films opening credit sequence: a spontaneously swinging lampshade here, a half-formed shadow there, and a vaguely goulish reflection of a spectre there. These fractured, skewed, B&W photographic images speak to the effectiveness of our imaginations to instinctively fill in the visual blanks in the most frightening means we can conjure. Pair this with the obligatory shrieking violins and various sudden, loud thumps and scrapes in the soundtrack and you have the vital ingredients for a fabulous frightfest. James Wan understands this and the first act of Insidous demonstrates that it is at least on par with the best of its ilk. But the films struggles begin with the commencement of the second act where the introduction of comedy threatens to derail the project.
Comedy and horror make strange bedfellows but they go off like a firecracker in the sack when paired correctly - witness the pinnacle of comedy horror, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II. And there are numerous other examples: Poltergeist, Ghostbusters, The Frighteners, House etc. In Insidious, however, the mood of the comic second act is so far removed from the first that it jars.
The films central premise regarding astral travel jars also in its believability but Wan quite cleverly provides an on-screen proxy for us skeptical audiences in one of his protagonists, Josh (Patrick Wilson). And although Wan's method of seduction is a little clunky, as Josh is surely convinced unto astral theory, so too are we.
The weakness of the films middle could be easily overlooked, however, in the presence of a strong third act but alas the final stretch sounds the death knell.
That Wan clearly demonstrates his understanding of elegant horror in the first act makes the disappointment of the films finale all the more bitter. Indeed it looks like the last third of the movie were directed by an entirely different film maker such is its inferiority to what has come before. For not only do we now see the monster face-to-face in all its all-to-human visage (our minds had already concocted a beast far fouler than this) but the sound editing feels half a beat off; like we're given time to process the "scary" visual and judge it benign before we're struck by the obligatory aural spike in the soundtrack. As a result, the moment falls flat and we're left thinking, "oh, that must have been a scary bit."
To think of what this film could have been adds to the disappointment as there's so many little details to like. The muted faded-photograph cinematography contributes effectively to the depressive mood of the film, as does Rose Byrne's first class performance as the tortured mother stretched to the brink of madness. To follow on in the style of the films opener seems so obvious as to invite question on why this wasn't done. It's as if Wan lost his nerve or even lost interest. Perhaps he was merely trying to achieve too much.
6.5 out of 10.