“One need not be a chamber to be haunted”

A couple of weeks ago, I saw It Follows, which I liked, but was also really disappointed by. Since the majority of people seem to have loved it, and just about everyone has already seen it and formed their own opinions, I’ll spare you the breakdown of the whys and wherefores of my feelings on the film, and instead talk about something else. Before, and after, and on every side of seeing It Follows, I’ve seen and heard countless people call it the “best horror film of the decade,” with one guy going so far as to claim that it’s also the best horror film that will come out in the next five years, which seems like some pretty impressive prognostication.

Obviously, I don’t share the opinion that It Follows is the best horror film of the decade, which led me to the question, well then, what is? Except, of course, any time the question “best” comes up, I am probably not equipped to answer it, so instead I tried to think of what my favorite horror film of the last decade was. In attempting to figure out, I restricted my research entirely to my DVD and Blu-ray shelves, and I wasn’t too careful about when things came out, so it’s possible that I missed a movie from the finalist list that would have beaten out this winner because I thought that it was made before 2005, or because I haven’t bought it yet for one reason or another.

Which is a long way of saying that, without working too hard at narrowing down the field, and at the risk of completely torpedoing any and all “serious” horror cred that I have, I think my favorite horror flick of the last decade might actually be Insidiousespecially if I get to cheat and lump its successor in as well. Now, please, bear in mind that I’m not saying Insidious is the best horror movie of the last decade. If nothing else, The Conjuring is pretty clearly a better film. It’s more successful, with better scares and sharper production all around. But the “based on a true story” mythology of The Conjuring, while fine, isn’t nearly as interesting to me as the bizarre comic book mythology of the Insidious films.

So, okay, why do I like the Insidiouses so much? Well, first off, I like James Wan. I’m not a Saw fan, to put it mildly, but I’ve liked pretty much everything else he’s ever done, including his recent non-horror outing Furious 7. I think he’s got a pretty pitch-perfect grasp on timing a good jump scare, and I love the weird aesthetic (what Gemma Files dubbed “vaudeville creep”) that works its way into just about every one of his movies. For more about Wan and why I liked Insidious (and even his basically forgotten haunted ventriloquist dummy flick Dead Silence) so much, you can read my impressions from the first time I saw it here.

Insidious has only grown on me over time. For one thing, I think it’s more original than it really gets credit for. Sure, it’s not like there aren’t tons of ghost movies clogging up the multiplexes these days, and it owes more than a minor debt to things like Poltergeist (which, in an ironic turn of events, the trailer for the Poltergeist remake looks like it’s now taking all of its pages from the Insidious playbook), but Insidious is way more ambitious than it needs to be, creating a fully-realized mythology for its low-budget haunted house story, including a legitimate underworld and demonic figures.

I’ve talked before about one of the key differences that I see between older horror movies–say pre-1960s or 70s–and modern ones: The people in modern horror movies are frequently fairly random victims, while the protagonists in older horror movies are there voluntarily, for one reason or another. Sometimes they’re still victims, but often they’re explorers or investigators, who may have bitten off more than they had planned to chew, but who are in this because they chose to be. In many cases, they have the option of just walking away, but opt not to. Now, that’s an assertion that would probably require more legwork than I have room for here to prove, but I bring it up simply to stay that another thing I love about Insidious is that, while its first half is pure modern horror flick with an unsuspecting family menaced by spectral presences for no reason that they’re aware of, midway through in introduces a trio of characters who are a) among the better protagonist characters in modern horror canon and b) there by choice, not chance.

Again, there are clear precursors in horror cinema to the ghost hunting trio of Tucker, Specs, and the psychic Elise, including in the aforementioned Poltergeist, but seldom have there been any so delightful. To show how well Lin Shaye inhabits the role of Elise, she basically reprises it in one of the more effective scenes of last year’s otherwise pretty lackluster Ouija. And speaking of Ouija, it’s also worth mentioning that few other recent movies have had the effect on the entire ghost movie landscape that Insidious can boast. You don’t even have to watch many of its spate of imitators; just look at a trailer, and you’ll see the influence of Insidious taking shape. (Also probably Paranormal Activity, which I have to admit that I haven’t yet seen even one of, in spite of there being something like six at this point.)

I have probably worn out my welcome by now, but before I close this out, I wanted to also touch upon Insidious Chapter 2, which isn’t as good as its predecessor, but which makes the Insidious franchise better in aggregate by its presence. Part of this is because it resists the easy temptation to just be a retread of the first film, instead opting to wander off into different (if not necessarily stranger) territory, including some call backs to the first film that screw with time in a fashion that I found wonderful, instead of just tiresome, as I usually would. Insidious 2 also plays with what must be Wan and writer partner Leigh Whannell’s profound terror of old ladies (these are the two things you will take away from the majority of Wan’s filmography–creepy puppets/dolls and equally creepy old ladies) and touches upon the franchise’s unlikely Giallo roots in interesting ways, replacing the haunted house structure of the first film with what essentially amounts to an elaborate ghostly murder mystery combined with a possession film (the latter of which would also crop up in The Conjuring, out the same year).

When I walked out of the theatre after seeing Insidious 2, pretty much my first thought was that, if you’d told me a few years before that I’d be seeing a legitimate horror flick in 2013 in which a falling chandelier, a hidden passage behind a bookcase, and sheeted ghosts were all used as sources of genuine menace, I would not have believed you, but I would have been very happy to be wrong. We’ll see if the third outing can add to the total quality of the franchise without the aid of Wan’s sure directorial hand when it hits theatres later this year.

And I think, ultimately, that’s why I love the Insidious movies more than scarier, smarter, and even legitimately better horror flicks that have come out in the last decade. Insidious and its sequel are effective and spooky, well-shot and well-staged, more original and more clever than they’re usually given credit for, but they’re also fun and comic book-y and often delightfully old-fashioned in unexpected places, which more or less nails what I love most about this genre. If these things had more neon and better monsters, this would pretty much be my wheelhouse.

After watching Insidious–and at various other times after seeing Wan’s other movies–I compared the style of its scares to a dark ride. You strap yourself in, you take what the movie is going to offer you, and sometimes you find yourself jumping or getting scared, even when you know what’s coming. And when the ride is over, if you’re anything like me, you want to jump right back in and go through it again. Plus, I just love that ridiculous title treatment.

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