Fear In A Handful Of Potpourri: Insidious

Fear In A Handful Of Potpourri: Insidious

Static Mass Rating: 3/5
Momentum Pictures 

Release date: April 29th 2011
Certificate (UK): 18
Running time: 102 minutes

Director: James Wan

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye,

You may not be familiar with the name Oren Peli, but no doubt you will be with the burgeoning franchise of Paranormal Activity (2007). Peli is its evil mastermind. If the existing two instalments were not warning enough of his sinister intentions, his new production Insidious should be.

Peli it would seem is determined to metaphysically vandalize your only refuge in a world quite full enough of terror, panic and despair. He wants your home. And like one of his spectres, he will not rest until it’s his.


He will not rest till every ticking clock portends your gruesome death, till every kitchen draw is an orchestra of cutlery for malignant phantoms to conduct, till every sofa stares at you like a great squatting demon frog. Oh yes. He will not rest until you can’t.

Peli’s ethnoreligious history may or may not, as you wish, have something to do with this compulsion to poison domestic tranquillity. But never since King Herod went house to house killing first-born children has the Jewish hearth been quite secure.

If it isn’t the Romans banging at the door it’s the bloody Nazis, and that rumbling sound in the night is probably a missile dispatched by some homeless Palestinian hoping to raze yours.

The safe and familiar becoming hostile and strange could be said to constitute a theme in Semitic history. It is certainly thematised in Peli’s films.

His latest victims are the Lambert family- who if anyone cares are almost certainly named after the eponymous character in Louis Lambert, Balzac’s novel about the eccentric theologian and self-professed “astral projector” Emanuel Swedenbourg. The young family have moved house to a vast rambling pile that looks more haunted than a derelict mental asylum on an Indian burial ground.


Mrs. Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) is an ever so sullen self-sacrificing housewife and mother of three with what appears to be a faintly disappointed musical career. She is very marginally overburdened with the demands of her young brood and perhaps somewhat annoyed with the gentle insouciance of her husband, Josh (Patrick Wilson), a hearty American father who looks permanently like he either just has or is just about to throw a few pitches with his boys in the yard.

He is a teacher or something, it’s almost impossible to care, and, oh look, he has found a grey hair. He’s slightly aging, which is an incontrovertibly human thing to do. He even snores. How vaguely human they both are, and how endearing it is to see them living their fractionally skewed life consisting of literally several of those minor deviations from perfection which make a person unique like the rest of us. Yes, perhaps I do care that they shan’t all die on the spot! Slightly.

With this hilariously (and I want to think deliberately) apathetic attempt to defraud our sympathies out of the way, we’re off. Books are found unaccountably on the floor and children complain about peculiar feelings. Boxes appear and disappear. A child falls into a medically inexplicable coma. The usual.


Three months later and Dalton- whose actor, Ty Sympkins, apparently wept with fear throughout filming- remains unconscious but is nevertheless brought home with medical equipment to support him, presumably because monstrous apparitions are reluctant to disclose themselves at hospitals, where they have an embarrassing history of being mistaken for acute mental illness.

Recommence weirdness. Baby #1 points at vacancy and son #2 complains of strange noises emanating from Dalton’s room. Doors open and crash shut. The burglar alarm triggers repeatedly.

But if you think these decent bread-and-butter down-to-earth real-world all-American folk are going to let a bit of pocus like this get in the way of their materialist convictions – well! You’ve probably never seen a haunted house film before.

It isn’t until Renai is quite unambiguously attacked by a disfigured apparition and finds what is incontestably a bloody handprint on Dalton’s bed-sheets that she begins, quite strongly, to suspect something’s up. But she’s probably just going crazy. Even the empirically demonstrable handprint doesn’t convince Josh, who has been coping with his concerns as men do, by ignoring them. But nevertheless he condescends to his little lady’s delusion and agrees to move house. Phew. Well I’m glad that that’s all over then…


When you get over the disbelief that in fact it isn’t, you’ll find that what follows is a lengthy concentrated eruption of jumpy-scary bits followed by the incongruous respite of a comic duet by blundering paranormalists Tucker and Specs (the latter played by writer Leigh Whannel), who at first appears to have wandered on set from a Seth Rogan film.

They are the unlikely assistants of Elise Reiner, a po-faced medium whose introduction by Josh’s mother (a character who bears the visible marks of a shoehorn until the plot eventually gives the character some purpose) heralds the first of several tenuous modulations of sub-genre which congest the final act.

The haunted house story regresses to its juvenile precursors, monsters under the bed (which aren’t scary once you’ve seen them) and Peter-Pannish metaphysics for children. In theory it’s a good idea. In practice the story and scenery become so otherworldly that reaching the finale is like waking up after the nightmare of mundane reality attacking you from the rest of the film.

Indeed what is most frightening about this film is the familiar. Objects, you see, are scary things. Objects of the nice familiar homely variety are probably scariest of all. They’re there downstairs while you’re in bed. They are present to your absence in sleep. When you go out, they’re there unseen, being in your home without you. They exist without you, without the necessity of your existence.


The life of objects is your death. Their supernaturally induced animation is the animation of our fear of objects, of the death for us that objects insist. Like Paranormal Activity, Insidious does extremely well to make a living room suite as intensely terrifying as it ought to be. It will show you fear in a handful of potpourri.

At its best the movie is a scarier Americanised Shaun of the Dead (2004) for paranormal horror films. The set-up is extremely effective, a long simmering thrill of escalating tension which is somehow only enhanced by the relentless clichés and unconscionably bad matrimonial dialogue. The film has humour built into it, knowing that audiences are inured to all the tricks and more disposed to laughter than screams.

But a horror story, like a joke, is only as good as its punch line; and Insidious is let down by the convoluted dénouement, which wastefully exhales almost all fear and tension as the range of pastiche is overstretched.

The outcome is a long and regrettably incoherent film, part horror, part collage, part comedy. Each intention is stylish and skilfully realised but together they’re a desultory bunch. The filmmakers have clearly had a lot of fun and possibly their ebullience ran away with itself. But if you can get over the crowded, piecemeal arrangement, there is much with them to enjoy.

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