Within the horror genre it’s somewhat easy to pinpoint the film that inspired the legion of others that attempted to replicate the success of a previous box office hit. While to a certain extent Psycho and Black Christmas laid down a lot of the foundations of the slasher movie, it was really John Carpenter’s Halloween that would be the main inspiration for the likes of Friday the 13th and Prom Night.
It’s hard not to get the impression that replication is part and parcel of the genre, and with it come names famously associated with it and whose work can breed a slew of attempts at trying to recapture that high, particularly in terms of commercial success.
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To do it once is the mark of genuine talent; to do it twice is something else. Not for nothing, but when James Wan and Leigh Whannell unleashed Saw into the world in 2004, nobody could have predicted that its high concept hook, high levels of intensity and notorious sequence depicting the one-time Dread Pirate Roberts, Cary Elwes, sawing off his foot would spawn an initial seven-film cycle that has managed to keep going, with recent relaunches of the series such as Jigsaw and the forthcoming Spiral: From The Book of Saw keeping its spirit alive.
Of course, successful horror films have a habit of spawning never-ending franchises, with sequels that can run into the double digits and which can be produced at a rate of one film per year or thereabouts, sometimes taking extended breaks and then coming back years later for a reboot, revival or remake (just take a look at the production cycle of Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes for a bad way to do this, or David Gordon Green’s Halloween of 2018 for a genuinely brilliant way to go about it).
What makes Wan and Whannell’s productions so appealing is there is a clear unabashed love of genre coursing through their films’ veins. The first Saw was not only a brilliantly ghastly high concept hook that asked tough questions of both its characters and its audience over what they might do in that situation, but it was a great thriller that wasn’t afraid to go to dark places. Admittedly the later instalments, particularly the second half of its run, dwelled more on the torture elements and, along with Eli Roth’s Hostel, spawned an entire subgenre that devoted itself to films centred on torture and dominated horror cinema for several years.
Of course, the subgenre as a whole was a response to the post 9/11 era War on Terror and the horrifying foreign policy initiated by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, but when it came to Wan and Whannell’s next horror franchise, they looked away from blood, guts and the dismantling of the human body that would notoriously characterise their breakthrough series and instead turned to the world of the supernatural, where things go bump in the night, that would play with elements of time and perception and which would gain a visceral reaction from its audience with brilliant handling of the jump scare.
If Saw looked back to the influx of serial killer horror cinema that characterised the 90s, films such as Se7en, Copycat and The Bone Collector (albeit taken in even more extreme directions), then Insidious arrived with an atmosphere and approach that felt more like it was harking back affectionately towards Amblin and the 80s. There are nods and winks towards Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist in Insidious‘ set-up involving a middle-class family in a nice house being emotionally put through the wringer by something that is clearly not of this world.
The inclusion of a psychic, in this case played by the always brilliant Lin Shaye, and having the parents played by classy talents such as Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, and with support from Barbara Hershey (casting that refers back to haunted house thriller The Entity), and you can tell that Wan and Whannell (who also shows up in a supporting role) are revelling in a set-up and scenario that is inspired by their love of genre cinema. Better yet, the inclusion of increasingly dark menaces such as the spectres that haunt the family at the centre of Insidious (and its first sequel) have a darkly imaginative spark that in one moment can recall Kubrick’s ghosts in his adaptation of The Shining, and the use of the colour red for one sequence that cannot help but evoke Dario Argento’s Suspiria.
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It plays in a pool of broad horror strokes, but with emotional intelligence that filters the plot through its characters in such a great way that you can see how it inspired a franchise that is set to go to its fifth film (set to be directed by Wilson no less), one with a complex chronology (this and the first sequel are effectively the third and fourth parts of the story) and which would pave the way for Wan and Whannell to become dominant voices in the horror genre going forward.
Whannell would make his directorial debut with the third film before going on to direct glorious genre pieces such as Upgrade, and a relevant and powerful take on The Invisible Man, while Wan has become a major voice not only within the horror genre but within the confines of blockbuster cinema. If Insidious recalls 80s blockbusters such as Poltergeist, then his next franchise, The Conjuring and its increasing number of offspring would launch itself on a mothership series of films that would harken back to the 70s, with stories and set-pieces that clearly took their cue from some of the most famous films of that era. Those movies would turn the jump scare factor up even further, and would retain a lot of DNA with Insidious’ leading man Wilson, composer Joseph Bishara, and director of photography John F. Leonetti, but they would also not lose sight of what made Insidious work: character.
None of this film would land if you didn’t care, and while Wan and Whannell’s film (along with Paranormal Activity which launched around the same time) has influenced supernaturally flavoured horror cinema since, with films that pile on jump scare after jump scare (and with it high box office returns, but an unsurprising disdain from so-called high brow critics who bash films such as this to prop up so-called ‘elevated horror’ – a stupid term if there ever was one), like so many of the copycats, you can’t help but feel they are in the shadow a little bit of what came before.
Wan and Whannell are part of a cycle of horror directors working today who, on top of a clear love of the genre and the possibilities that the genre elements give them, also love having their films spend time with their characters away from the jump scares and effective ‘boo’ moments. Insidious draws you into its family drama before it starts piling on the suspense, which gives those elements a crucial power that lands dramatically. It’s pivotal to its success that Wan and Whannell have brought to the films they have made separately after this.
The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Haunting takes five minutes to have Wilson’s character sing an Elvis song which should be a jump the shark moment but which amazingly works. Whannell’s The Invisible Man and its prolonged stomach-churning set-pieces would have no impact if both he and Elisabeth Moss hadn’t made the themes and moments in it that gives it power as devastating as they did, along with creating a great central character.
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The direction that they went with Insidious has come to define a lot of their genre work going forward, and while some horror purists or high brow critics might scoff, to have steered the genre into a direction that involves films with a supernatural theme, characters investigating what goes bump in the night and which combine human family dramas and effective use of jump scares and which boast imagination in its stories can only be a good thing.
From this, we got an era of brilliant productions that not only involved the films that Wan and Whannell have made, but also the influx of films from Blumhouse, a brilliant new version of IT, and the works of Mike Flanagan which amazingly led to a superlative sequel to The Shining and a brilliant new interpretation of The Haunting of Hill House. It gives Insidious the quiet dignity of being something of an important film in the genre.
Insidious was released in the UK on 29th April 2011.