Despite the success of Saw, the indie sensation renowned for establishing “torture porn” as the preeminent horror sub-genre of the 2000s, director James Wan was unsatisfied. He told Entertainment Weekly in 2013 that he found the movie a blessing and a curse.
“It really marginalized me as a filmmaker,” Wan said. “It made a lot of people in Hollywood think that I was ‘that guy,’ that that was the only kind of movies I made.”
While Wan didn’t direct the far bloodier sequels of Saw, he wanted to prove he wasn’t a splatter artist. “I wanted to prove to people that I could make a very classic, old-fashioned haunted house film and show that I could make scary films without relying on blood and guts.”
Little did he know it, but Wan would redefine horror cinema again. Ten years ago, Wan released his fourth feature Insidious, which struck gold at the box office and spawned a new 21st-century franchise with three sequels and more on the way. What’s more, Insidious introduced a style that became the undeniable horror flavor of the 2010s. Here’s why you need to watch Insidious, streaming on Netflix right now.
At its core, Insidious is a classic haunted house movie. The perfectly normal Lambert family — led by father/husband Josh (Patrick Wilson) and mother/wife Renai (Rose Byrne) — move into a new home, only to find themselves at the mercy of a sinister presence that renders their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) into a coma.
Soon, the Lamberts learn it’s not the house that’s haunted, but the family themselves. With the help of a paranormal investigator Elise (Lin Shaye) and her assistants (one of them played by filmmaker Leigh Whannell, who has since directed Insidious sequels), Josh journeys into the nightmarish realm of “The Further” to rescue their son’s soul.
Unlike Wan’s other big horror franchise of the 2010s, The Conjuring, Patrick Wilson does not play a deceptively wholesome ghost hunter. Instead, in the Insidious universe, he’s a hard skeptic who shoos Lin Shaye’s Elise from his home when she speaks nonsense about demons and dimensions. Insidious is a different shade on Wilson, who appears elsewhere as the calm voice of earnest belief in the unexplainable.
But it’s not just a reliably great Wilson that makes Insidious a classic of the decade. Arriving at the dawn of the 2010s (it premiered at TIFF in September 2010 and commercially released later in April 2011), it’s Insidious’ purposeful staging and pacing — you never know what’s “off” about what’s in front of you until it’s too late — to its heart-attack-inducing soundtrack by Joseph Bashara that set trends for horror movies for the next decade.
I like to call it, “staccato horror.”
Strictly speaking, “staccato” is music “performed with each note sharply detached or separated from the others.” On film, a medium with visual and audio elements not limited to music, staccato horror generates fear by the inclusion of a “detached or separated” element that’s unlike anything onscreen. This is how horror works naturally; like comedy, it’s the unexpected thing, timed at the right moment, that makes a movie funny or scary.
But “staccato horror” cranks things to eleven, and you can see the sub-genre crystallizing in Insidious. From the start, Bishara’s strings that play to the movie’s hostile, aggressive titles (in blood-red letters, no less) is an unnerving, hostile “welcome” into the movie’s clutches. It only gets worse (or better) from there: A ghost in red stands behind a crib. An angry voice yells through a baby monitor. A long tracking shot lulls viewers until their peripheral vision picks up a boy in a laundry room. Much later in the movie, Tiny Tim’s piercing, falsetto voice sings “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” as a demon sharpens his nails.
It’s not a perfect science. But it’s that feeling that something is off and you, as the audience, are not sure what or why that is. It’s this crack in our senses that characterizes “staccato horror” as the flavor of the 2010s. It was a hard left turn from the previous decade’s torture porn, and Insidious was among the first to establish the new normal. The best horror movies of the 2010s, like The Babadook (2014), The Witch (2015), Lights Out (2016), Hereditary (2018), Annihilation (2018), Midsommar (2019), not to mention Wan’s other major hit The Conjuring (2013) all contain elements of staccato horror, whether their soundtracks actually have staccato notes or not.
Another legacy of Insidious is letting Wan show range as a director. If his mission was to expand his repertoire after Saw, Insidious is a huge success. The movie eschews the suggestively gory terror of Saw (Insidious is remarkably bloodless, with only one real casualty) to let Wan work out his ability to focus on characters. It’s this ability that allowed Wan to find his way into action, overseeing movies like Furious 7 (2015) and the DC superhero movie Aquaman (2018).
Insidious has jump scares, sure, but none of them are cheap. Under the hand of Wan, the scares are satisfying because they’re earned. As Mr Nerdista argued in a 2016 YouTube video essay on James Wan: “It’s that eerie, riveting tension that makes his films so special ... Because we know Wan isn’t setting out to dupe us with a cheap scare, it makes his work even more terrifying.”
Insidious is streaming on Netflix now.