In the wake of Paranormal Activity and the glut of found-footage haunted house style films before it, Insidious, made for less than $2M, burst onto the horror scene in 2011 and cleaned up in its opening weekend. Screenwriter Leigh Whannell and director James Wan — best known then as the Saw guys — had performed a wonderful trick: they had gotten better. Insidious featured actors Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson in the lead roles and Lin Shaye as Elise, a gifted medium who had secretly been there all along and the glue that held it all together.
The story was simple yet original. It relied on classic haunted house tricks but gave them sort of a punk rock edge when it came to the visual style, and Joseph Bishara’s score (Bashira also played The Lipstick-Faced Demon!) was scary, spine-tingling and fun all at the same time — just like the movie! With Insidious, it seemed that for the first two acts, Wan and Whannell were playing by the rules and showing the world that they had more to offer than grisly death traps and slick editing. As a reward for being on their best behavior, the team was let off the leash in the third act when Patrick Wilson’s Josh Lambert travels into “The Further” to find grinning ghosts, Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”, and fog. Lots and lots of fog. The movie ends with shocking flourish and a modern update of a grindhouse style freeze frame, followed by the title and a swell of music. It was a glorious ride on a horror roller coaster and I loved every minute of it.
The second film, an immediate continuation of the first, was completely different. If you didn’t enjoy The Further in the first movie, you might have gotten off the Insidious train because Chapter 2 was bonkers, to say the least. Part What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? and part Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Wan and Whannell did the only thing that they could do in making a follow-up to their grown-up spookfest: the exact opposite. The restrained creaks and subtle scares in the first installment were long gone in favor of the twisted tale of Parker Crane and his horrifying and aggressive mother, all while handsome nice guy Patrick Wilson gave us his best Jack Torrance. I, for one, loved it even though I spent most of my movie-going experience thinking, “I can’t believe what I’m seeing! Are you kidding? Really?!”
Much like Scream/ Scream 2 before it, the tone had shifted in favor of fun and quirky as opposed to its predecessor, which had more of a straight face. This was fine by me because frankly, I didn’t want to see a rehash of the first movie. Plus, it wasn’t all fun and games — with Chapters 1 and 2, Wan and Whannell succeeded in building the Insidious universe. Fans who enjoy the mythology of their horror franchises were in for a treat when they unlocked the mysteries of The Further, the history of the Lambert family, and the notorious “Bride in Black.” Chapter 2 also introduced us to new characters like Carl (I love Carl…) and elevated Lin Shaye’s Elise as the official heroine of this world.
With Chapter 3, a prequel that is out today, Whannell took the reins as both writer and director (although Wan remains a producer on the franchise) and brought the story full circle, showing us a significant portion of Elise’s origin story. If each movie in the Insidious franchise really is a “chapter,” they are coming from Elise’s book. Actress Lin Shaye, recently dubbed “The Godmother of Horror,” is the heart and soul of these movies and truthfully, she always has been. The weight she gave to the Insidious universe in the first film allowed this weird and kooky universe a soul, a soul that has guided it to stand out from all the rest three installments deep.
I like the Insidious movies because they’re different and yet they all fit together so well. The visual style and the world are rich and specific to this universe alone, however each movie also has its own style set apart from the others (which is a treat, I think, for fans of cinema). Chapter 1 is classic haunted house horror, Chapter 2 is robust, active in its storytelling and almost campy, in a way. Chapter 3, while filled with chilling set pieces brought to you by a terrifying new “big bad”, is probably the most spiritual. As a fan of the supernatural subgenre, something I often notice is that the folks behind the scenes treat the spiritual nature of the thing as an obligation. Here, we learn that our protagonist, Quinn (played by Stefanie Scott) has recently lost her mother. Where I want to commend Whannell is that the death of a loved one is not only the impetus for her getting tangled up in the danger of the other side, but actually pays off. So often the forces for dark are the only ones that are active. This time, a movie acknowledges the forces for light, too.
In the end, these are movies that are quick and silly and lots of fun to watch in a crowded theater with people screaming and laughing as something from The Further makes itself known. But if you’re a genre fan, I think there’s not only a lot of cinematic diversity and mythology that’s worth appreciating, but quirky touches and a unique tone that only comes from a Wan and Whannell production.