If you plan on seeing Insidious, but haven't yet, you may want to skip this blog post. To get to the problem with the film, I have to reveal part of its plot.
I was very hesitant to see Insidious. I don't know how a PG-13 horror film can be effective. I realized it was a "ghost" story, so to speak, and that it probably wasn't aiming for emotionally disturbing, so that weighed in its favor. Then there were the good reviews. A lot of them. So, accompanied by a certain female companion, I went.
I was reasonably pleased. There were too many cheap scares (the kind that cause you to jump in your seat, which I hate because they are easy), but overall the film was very creepy ... until the end.
The movie doesn't fail in its attempt to deliver a good scare, but it does falter, and that is because the location switches. Toward the film's climax, part of the action takes place in a realm called The Further. This is the place you go when you astrally project. This is where the scares stop.
Previously in the film, the scary moments all took place in the young married couple's home. This is a setting with which everyone is familiar. When something happens in a house that is otherwordly or out of place (a man standing the corner, music playing by itself), it is freaky. When things happen in a realm unknown by viewers, a realm where seemingly anything can happen, the scares disappear because the rules of normality no longer apply. Ghosts and demons don't usually inhabit our homes. Therefore, when they appear it causes a scare. Visit their dimension, however, and they seem a hell of lot less special.
This almost tanked the movie as far as I am concerned. When the father character of Patrick Wilson goes into The Further to save his son, it had one or two unsettling moments, but that was it. All the fear that had been built up earlier in the film was now diffused. I felt no tension because I believed anything could happen, and if anything can happen, anything can be undone. Had I directed/wrote the film, I would've discussed The Further, played it up as a horrendous place ... and then never showed it. I would have had plenty of scenes of Wilson in his chair, seemingly sleeping, but in The Further. I would've kept the camera on Wilson and those in the room and instead of showing this foggy other world, I would've had various noises sounding (gnawing sounds, ghastly moans, metal on metal, etc.). Wilson would have been in obvious physical and mental distress. Bite marks would appear on his face. Viewers would be waiting for something, and would have no idea what they would get. When the action in the film that really exists (and not my version) turned back to the house, with Wilson and his son re-united, I would've kept that all in. Bringing The Further into our world was a good idea. Bringing our world into The Further was not.
If you have to expose your scares, it's always best to do it in a familiar setting. After all, what is scarier, coming home and finding a stranger sitting in your chair, or breaking into someone's house and seeing them sitting in their chair? Obviously it's the former. The familiar breeds a feeling of safety and comfort. Disrupt it, and you've got your audience right where you want them.
Insidious was still a good film. Underrated, even. It almost derailed itself, but managed to salvage some its momentum. Had The Further never existed in physical form it would almost be perfect. Maybe they'll get it right with the inevitable sequel.
-Doug Brunell (America's Favorite Son)