Insidious poster

The Devil You Know: Insidious Shifts the Haunted House on the Sly

October 6, 2021 By Carolyn Mauricette Go Back

Anyone who loves horror knows there’s a movie for every mood. Be it classic slashers like Friday the 13th, Halloween or highbrow game-changers like The Exorcist; horror fans have a knack for finding the right fit for what they need in the moment. After the teen horrors of the 90s came the 00s and a new type of horror. It was extreme, gory and coined as “torture porn” by critic David Edelstein. Those films, like Hostel and Wolf Creek, would make viewers cringe at the splatter. In that decade, another film cornering the market for cringe-worthy kills was Saw, directed by a 24-year-old named James Wan and written with Leigh Whannell. With a budget of approximately 1.2 million dollars, this 2004 indie horror starring Danny Glover and Carey Elwes became the top-selling horror franchise of all time.

After a couple of box office misses for Wan with Dead Silence and Death Sentence in 2007, he would team up with Whannell again to make Insidious in 2010, taking the haunted house trope inspired by past horror classics to serve horror fans something new. With support by Oren Peli, director of Paranormal Activity and the horror/genre production company Blumhouse, Insidious gave nods to Poltergeist and The Entity starring Barbara Hershey, who incidentally would make a return to horror in 2010 with Black Swan and then Insidious. This film would stake its claim in the horror genre, proving its longevity with a sequel and two prequels in an eerie paranormal world.

Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson sit together in Insidious.

Insidious tells the story of Renai and Josh Lambert (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson), who move into a sprawling craftsman home with their children Foster (Andrew Astor), Dalton (Ty Simpkins) and baby Kali (Brynn and Madison Bowie). It seems like a new start for the family, with Renai reclaiming her songwriting career after having Kali. The house is dark and creepy, and Dalton takes a tumble when he goes into the attic after an open door beckons him. What looks like a few bruises turns out to be more serious when Dalton doesn’t wake up the next morning and becomes a shell of a boy as he slumbers in a mysterious coma. Renai starts to hear voices over the baby monitor, escalating to ghostly figures menacing her. The family packs up and moves when Renai finds a blood-red handprint on Dalton’s sheet from an unknown source. The new house does nothing to remedy the hauntings since Renai continues to experience paranormal sightings. Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), Josh’s mother, carries a secret and finally tells Renai she knows someone who can help, calling on psychic Elise (Lin Shaye) and her assistants Specs (Leigh Whannel) and Tucker (Angus Sampson). They inform the family that spirits are clamouring to come through and take Dalton’s body because he’s not in a coma. What’s happening to him is a supernatural phenomenon called astral projecting, and his out-of-body experience has led his spirit too far from his mortal body. It’s up to Elise and her team to bring him back from a supernatural realm called The Further, and Lorraine will have to reveal a secret about her son Josh to get Dalton back.

There is a clever franchise vehicle in The Further where ghostly menace lies in wait for some unsuspecting dreamer or astral traveller to wander into their clutches, and that leads us to Insidious 2 (Spoilers ahead!). The sequel follows the Lamberts, their ongoing battle in The Further and Josh’s supernatural foe, The Old Woman or The Bride in Black, first played by Phillip Friedman and then Tom Fitzpatrick. We’re brought back to the end of the first film, with Elise dying at the hands of The Bride in Black, who has taken over Josh’s body and plans to stay. Renai and the boys have to rely on Carl (Steve Coulter), Elise’s old friend; and Specs, Tucker and Lorraine discover the story of this phantom and the carnage she left behind. Insidious 3 jumps before the Lamberts to Quinn (Stefanie Scott), a teen who misses her dead mom and asks Elise to contact her mother’s spirit. Elise deals with her own loss and fights The Bride in Black for the first time. The final chapter, Insidious The Last Key, brings us to Elise, her abusive childhood, and her introduction to the keeper of the red doors in The Further called Key Face. With four films in this spirit world, one would think it’s a bit much, and to an extent, it is. But there’s something to be said for a storyline in the last two films that focuses on an older woman who battles both personal and supernatural demons and comes out on the “other side.” I also like the clever tie-ins with the previous films you’ll catch in The Further, but I’ll always be a die-hard fan of the first two films.

The first Insidious is a haunted house film with a spin. The family deals with the haunting, not the house, and with economical use of jump scares―and the anticipation when jump scares don’t appear― you’re on edge, be it the first time you see Insidious or the tenth. It’s one of my favourite horror films for that popcorn feel and genuinely hair-raising moments. One scare in particular―when the Lipstick-Face Demon appears for the first time―goes down as one of the best modern jump scares since The Exorcist III. He’s one of my favourite ghouls of recent memory, and I’d to spend a moment with this red-faced spectre.

A hideous witch wearing a veil holds a lit candle in Insidious

First off, we need to salute the production design by concept artist extraordinaire Aaron Sims. He boasts a huge list of concept work, and I love what he did with the Lipstick-Face Demon and his lair. It stands out from The Further as a completely bonkers space with what I imagine any kid terrified of an evil spirit would conjure up. Dangling, grimacing puppets, a hellish sharpener for the demon’s talons and the sounds of “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” by Tiny Tim; an innocuous tune turned sinister, create an unforgettable scene in this nightmare theatre. The devil himself, with a forked tongue and enormous hooves, is at times absurd like he’s ready to join KISS in their heyday, but when you get a full look at him, he’s scary as, well, Hell. And the man who plays the demon? His name is Joseph Bishara. As a creature performer, he deserves a spot in the Horror Hall of Fame living in my head. Bishara has played Bathsheba in The Conjuring and a demon in The Conjuring 2 and Annabelle, to name a few. He often composes music for Wan too, including the claws-on-a-chalkboard, anxiety-inducing score for Insidious.

Insidious did a lot of things. It refreshed the family in supernatural peril/haunted house trope and boosted Patrick Wilson’s career in genre film. In the Wan-directed The Conjuring series, he would become a reoccurring character as real-life paranormal investigator Ed Warren. Insidious also changed the focus from gore to suspense-driven horror. It’s a movie you have to engage with, keeping your eyes on the screen instead of your phone, looking into corners for those ghostly glimpses that might predict upcoming terrors, anticipating a delicious boost of adrenaline.

Melding childhood illness, family dysfunction, and suppressing childhood trauma with the supernatural put Insidious on the horror map, and just when you think they were done, there’s a new chapter on the horizon. Look out for Insidious: The Dark Realms, an upcoming project to promote, yes, Insidious 5 with Wilson set to make his directorial debut in 2022.


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