Strictly speaking anything that presents itself as a horror (or which is marketed as one) should have one aspiration alone - to scare its audience, and I partly forgive even the messiest of all generic additions if it does that one staple thing right. It's just a shame that the scare seems to have been filed in the "unwanted" pile these days when it comes to horror, with gimmicks taking the place of genuine, spine-tingling chills. Franchises like Saw have taken the essence of the horror film and stripped everything away until it is reduced to one simple ever-perpetuating idea - in that case a You've Been Framed style voyeuristic pleasure in gruesome trap deaths - and one of the men responsible has now offered a more traditionally centred horror movie in the shape of Insidious.James Wan may not be the biggest name in genre movie circles, having directed Saw (along with writer Leigh Whannell who rejoins him here) and scripted Saw III, as well as a couple of less remarkable titles that few would recall in particularly favourable light. But what he managed with Saw isn't to be sneezed at given how badly that franchise has faded, and there was enough there in his aesthetic agenda and technical abilities to suggest there could be a good film-maker waiting to get out. With Insidious, Wan and Whannell have announced that their potential is maturing, having created a genuinely scary, maturer, jump-heavy shocker that will crawl under the skin of every viewer thanks to a blend of traditional conventions well used, and a central premise that has some age-old collective horrors attached to it. That premise is simple, as it usually is with the best horrors: having moved into a new home, a family discovers that they are not alone, and spirits have taken over their new residence, which also coincides with their son falling into an "unexplained coma" (in the words of the frankly quite slip-shod doctors) having had a run in with a Demon, unbeknownst to his parents. No longer committed to that particular real estate, and concerned for the continuing health of said son, they move again, only to discover that it wasn't the house that was haunted. I've said it before, any horror that includes children in any way is a winner, because there is something in that juxtaposition of innocence and evil that affects me at a near genetic level. When I initially heard about Insidious, I opted out of seeing it for that reason - I prefer to experience the really scary horrors in the comfort of my own home, alone so that noone can see me weeping - and my fears were well founded. Even worse, the cover looks a lot like a possessed Justin Bieber, who has finally flipped and taken his seat at the right hand of the Dark Lord as he no doubt will in real life. Insidious is very generic, cliched even in parts, but it is one of those perfect examples of something formed from familiar parts that cumulatively result in something far better. Thankfully, it swerves the temptation to go for low-paid young acting "talent" - a decision that horror film-makers usually go with to establish an "everyone's-fair-game" feeling - instead using the more established duo of Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne as the leads. On their shoulders, the film is more mature than any of those youthful horrors, and the fact that we are more than familiar with the faces also adds gravitas to their situation and the immediate threat to them on screen. It's good to care in these situations, and familiarity also allows us to empathise with the personal horror of what is happening to the couple. But then, let's be perfectly frank, any horror film these days that doesn't feature some kind of gimmick (and I'm including slashers and post-modern slashers in there) and which rises above mediocrity can be considered a resounding success. It is all just a matter of comparative quality, and in that context Insidious is one of the best horrors made in the past ten years or more. It feels like an authentic attempt to recapture an older horror spirit, by film-makers who know their genre onions - look back at Saw, the hints are all there, abeit dressed up in new clothing - and it definitely packs in a few solid jumps. One of the enduring experiences of a horror film is the ridiculousness that an audience feels following the biggest shocks - it's why there are so many false-shocks were the director builds up to a crescendo that never comes using established techniques, to lull us into a false sense of security - so we are left with the odd, oxymoronic experience of laughing at ourselves while we wait for the next scare. Insidious does this perfectly (without the over-exaggerated false-starts), so it is a great deal easier to forgive the fact that the film often swerves towards ludicrous territory. The whole astral projection scene is a little bit too overt in the context of the rest of the film, and will be the deal-breaker for many, but it wasn't so much of an issue for me. Admittedly it's the sort of thing you might expect from a high-numbered sequel when the prime ideas have long dried up. Crucially, the film tries to grab the audience by the little hairs on the backs of our necks with the icy fingers of suspense, rather than with the unrefined, blatant hammerblow of gore and guts. The greatest thing a horror can do is go to bed with each and every audience member, extending its influence beyond the limitations of the film itself having planted a seed in their imagination that will bloom ominously when the lights go out hours later. It is a surprisingly refined art, and one that takes far more artfulness and technique than presenting endless sequences of victims we don't care about getting their heads squashed. Chief among the successful features is the film-making team's commitment to atmospherics, which creates an immersive, chilling feel that is perfectly, intangibly affecting. The lighting, the sound design, the soundtrack and the shot composition all play their part - and each ring with that generic authenticity that confirmed for me that Wan and Whannell know how good horror is put together. Yes it's spoiled somewhat by the silliness, but Insidious is still a genuinely shocking experience - in that it holds some good jumps - and it deserves to be considered as one of the best non-gimmicky genre additions of recent times. Though that in itself isn't necessarily a huge accolade. Quality The source was captured digitally, so film grain was never going to come into play, which is a shame as I always feel that grain helps add a mysticism to horror films that the cold, clinical precision of high-definition doesn't really offer to its detriment. The upside though is that detail is brilliantly captured throughout, and textures endure well even in the darkest of scenes - of which there are quite a few - and inky, solidly defined black levels mean those pitch black scenes still retain their depth and some discernible detail. All-in-all another great transfer from Sony on the visual side of things. The sound transfer is of similar, if not exactly the same quality - the sound design is particularly strong, and the DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless soundtrack offers the perfect canvas on which to show off the great musical tracks and wonderfully affecting sound effect work. Again, grade A stuff. Extras A limited selection of behind-the-scenes material, with no commentary, and no In-Film experience to compensate, which is a shame, as it would have been interesting to hear James Wan talk his way through some of the film's poorer moments, given how badly conceived they seem to have been in comparison to the better parts. I would have also liked some more focus on the generic heritage of the film, reference to its own reference points - to Poltergiest and The Exorcist most obviously - as it is a film that invites us to get under its skin just as it does that of the audience. Horror 101: The Exclusive Seminar (10:27 mins) On Set with Insidious (8:15 mins) Insidious Entities (6:32 mins) Previews: Additional Sony titles. BD-Live.
Insidious is available to buy on Blu-ray & DVD now.