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How low-budget ghost story Insidious became one of America’s top horror franchises

Lin Shaye plays the medium Elise, one of the best characters in recent horror films, in the Insidious franchise.
Lin Shaye plays the medium Elise, one of the best characters in recent horror films, in the Insidious franchise.
FilmDistrict

Every generation’s teenagers eventually get the horror film franchise they deserve. The morality- and mortality-obsessed 1980s birthed the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street movies, which doubled as tracts on the virtues of staying a virgin as long as possible. The archly ironic '90s begat the head-spinningly meta Scream movies, while the brutal, violent 2000s launched the Saw films.

Just five years in, the 2010s are already home to several contenders for a decade-defining horror franchise that speaks to How We Live Today. We have the found-footage Paranormal Activity movies and the burgeoning, devil-child world of the Sinister films. There’s also the growing indie horror scene, where projects like It Follows and The Babadook tell some of the scariest stories ever committed to celluloid.

But the horror franchise that just might emerge as the representative of the current era is a bit of an underdog. It’s a series of movies where essentially nobody dies — a rarity in the horror genre — because death is merely the start of an entirely new chapter of the story. It’s a series that attempts to restore the creepiness of the afterlife. And it’s a series, above all, about family.

Meet the Insidious movies.

What’s Insidious about?

At their most basic level, the Insidious movies are haunted house stories — or, more accurately, not quite that.

Screenwriter Leigh Whannell (who has not only written all three movies so far but also starred in all three and directed the third) pulls a fairly ingenious bait-and-switch in the franchise’s first film. Let’s trace the story through the three that exist so far.

Insidious (2011): Produced on a tiny budget, Insidious was a surprise hit that raked in tons of profit. It was sold as the first major collaboration between the brains behind the Paranormal Activity films (Oren Peli, who produced) and the Saw films (James Wan, who directed, and Whannell, who wrote). Somewhat surprisingly — especially for Saw fans — Insidious was more suggestive than overt. Where the Saw movies revel in gore and moments of extreme pain, Insidious features almost no blood and is more about creating an eerie, atmospheric mood.

In the first film, the Lambert family has just moved into a spooky house. Early on, eldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falls into an unexplainable coma. When his parents Joe (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) bring him home after months in a hospital, they begin to experience strange events not unlike a haunting. They move to another residence, where the events continue, only to realize it’s their son who’s being haunted, not their house.

From there, the film’s story sprawls into an elaborate mythology about a place called the "Further" that the dead travel through while en route from the realm of the living to whatever’s next. However, human beings’ spirit forms can get stuck in the Further if they arrive there while using astral projection (the detachment of the soul from the body to travel spiritually) and become either trapped or lost. Then, ghosts and other entities will attempt to enter the vacant (but still living) body of the astral projector. You get one guess as to why the Lamberts are suddenly plagued by ghosts. Official Vox score: 3.5/5

Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013): Wan and Whannell returned to the series for this second installment, which ingeniously reimagined certain portions of the first film to reflect this movie’s new reality, where an entirely different Lambert family member is imprisoned in the Further — with his body taken over by an evil entity who wants nothing more than to sow destruction and chaos. The movie works far too hard to pull everything together into one big, unified mythology, and it suffers for missing medium Elise (Lin Shaye), one of the first film’s most vibrant characters, for much of its running time. But as an endpoint to the story in the first film, it’s solid enough. Official Vox score: 2.5/5

Insidious: Chapter 3 (2015): With Wan departing the franchise, Whannell steps into the director’s chair for this third volume, which focuses on Elise, as well as the two technicians who help her investigate hauntings, Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson). The film is a flashback to the 2000s, and it introduces a new family, with a recently widowed patriarch played by Dermot Mulroney and his teenage daughter played by Stefanie Scott, for ghosts to torment. The film opens Friday, June 5, 2015. Official Vox score: n/s

Why are these movies so popular?

A son hides from his father in Insidious: Chapter 2.

James Wan uses empty space within individual frames beautifully to heighten tension. Check out all of the space between (possibly murderous) father and (carefully hiding) son in the above frame from Insidious: Chapter 2.

FilmDistrict

For one thing, the first Insidious is a perfectly constructed haunted house movie, to the degree that the opening credits feature spooky little Easter eggs for the audience to keep an eye out for. And even if the second film bites off more than it can chew — and offers a really strange resolution regarding the identity of one of the franchise’s main enemies — it still packs in some clever story turns and some great scares.

But the real answer is probably James Wan.

It will be interesting to see how the franchise performs without Wan, who was one of the primary reasons to check out the first two films. At times, the Further could be so much metaphysical gobbledygook — and, honestly, it still kind of is — but Wan’s imagining of it as a smoky hinterland that no living human should traverse kept the first two movies mostly on course. (So far, the Insidious films are far more successful as setups than they are as payoffs.)

Recently, more and more filmmakers have been trying to create films that offer the vibe of Steven Spielberg’s early films, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., movies where the supernatural intrudes upon suburbia. But in the Insidious movies — and Wan's even better ghost movie The Conjuring, which he filmed between Insidious chapters — Wan has already basically achieved that. The early passages of the first film are filled with the sorts of well-observed domesticity that was Spielberg’s stock in trade, and then the ghosts start pouring in.

Wan is a master of using negative space — of leaving just enough emptiness in a frame for your imagination to come up with all sorts of things that could be lurking there.

Check out, for instance, the above séance scene from the first film, which is a perfect example of filling a scene with lots of potential jolts to the audience, but never overdoing any single one. Wan's skill with set pieces vaulted him from the low-budget horror world to franchise filmmaking (his most recent project was Furious 7).

Truth be told, the Insidious movies rely a little too heavily on jump scares — where someone or something leaps into the frame from just outside of it — especially when compared with the eerier, more evocative The Conjuring. But Wan gave the first two films a surprisingly classy vibe.

Who else is important to the making of these movies?

Stefanie Scott stars in Insidious: Chapter 3.

The Insidious films have found terrific actors to play their many parts. Hopefully that will extend to Chapter 3's Stefanie Scott.

FilmDistrict

There’s Leigh Whannell, of course, who has shepherded the franchise’s mythology through three films now, and Oren Peli continues to produce. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne were the bedrock that the first two films were built atop, and Lin Shaye has turned Elise into one of the most fun characters in a horror movie in recent years. Plus Whannell and Angus Sampson have transformed Specs and Tucker into enjoyable, consistent comic relief.

But to understand Insidious — and mainstream American horror in general as of the last few years — you have to understand the series' producer, Jason Blum. Blum has created a mini-empire of horror in the past few years, as he’s produced the Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and Sinister franchises, while also producing one-offs like Unfriended and non-horror movies like Whiplash. He's turned himself into an old-fashioned impresario.

As he told The Verge:

I think it’s really important. If you go to business school, and you put a product out there in the world, and it’s working, the logic is to keep putting the same product out there. And I think that really bumps up against the creative process — and moviemaking, generally. And I think that our company really pushes against that. The one thing I try and do, when people say "what kind of movies do you guys look for," the one thing I look for is "different." And I think that’s very antithetical to Hollywood.

Hollywood looks backwards and tries to repeat. And we really try not to do that. We don’t always succeed, but I really think that what we try and do is different. And that’s very against what makes financial sense, right? So the only way to marry those two things is to keep the budgets low. Because if the budgets are low enough, it’s like, "Alright, fuck it, go try your weird new thing." So I think those things are very interconnected.

How do ghosts work in this franchise?

Mother in Insidious: Chapter 2

One of Insidious's many creepy ghosts doesn't want you saying anything.

FilmDistrict

Inconsistently! Insidious wisely doesn’t try to pin down what ghosts and demons are capable of in its world, the better to just let them do pretty much anything. So that means the series goes in for almost every single potential scare. A piano playing itself? Yep, that’s here. So are knocking on walls and doors opening by themselves. And, most memorably, there’s a long sequence in the first film when Renai hears … something talking over a baby monitor.

What’s unusual about Insidious is that it really does try to explain which malevolent spirits are responsible for which scares. Indeed, much of the second film is devoted to showing the audience scenes from the first film with new footage spliced in to reveal who or what was making those scares possible. It’s a little gimmicky, but it’s also kind of clever.

This means the ghosts in the franchise have to have some sort of personality, and the series mainly conveys said personality via costume and makeup choices. In the first two films, for instance, the "main" entities include a red-faced demon who desperately wants to enter our world to cause pain to others and a strange old woman whose fascination with family patriarch Joe gives the second film much of its storyline. When that old woman’s backstory is revealed, it’s one of the franchise’s more convoluted moments, but until that point, she’s a largely uncanny, surprisingly mournful presence.

How do psychic powers work in this franchise?

It's time for a seance in Insidious: Chapter 3.

Got a problem with ghosts and/or demons? That means it's time for a séance.

FilmDistrict

Also inconsistently! This is another case of Whannell simply tossing in every single psychic trope he can think of and hoping for the best. Elise makes contact with the dead by murmuring the things she sees to Specs (who sketches them or writes down what Elise is hearing). Elise's friend Carl (who pops up in the second film) tosses dice to see if the dead are trying to talk to him. And neither Specs nor Tucker has psychic powers, but both do use technology to try to find evidence of spirits. In short, if it looks kinda cool or seems kinda freaky, it’s probably made an appearance in this franchise.

What is treated a bit more consistently is astral projection, which is the unlikely basis of the entire franchise. Two members of the Lambert family, as it turns out, are capable of traveling outside of their bodies while they sleep, and it gets both of them into trouble. But a gifted enough psychic can apparently turn off this power in someone’s brain, which is mostly for the best, because it’s far too easy to become lost in the Further when you're doing so.

Because of Insidious's low-budget nature, however, the franchise can’t do too much visually with the idea of astral projection. It seems to mostly manifest as the characters traveling between this world and the Further, without a lot of other stops on the way. However, they are able to manipulate objects in our reality, so if you ever find yourself stuck in the Insidious universe, know that you can haunt your own family. Which could be fun!

What about the Further?

Joe heads into the Further in Insidious.

Joe (Patrick WIlson) explores the Further, having brought along his lantern.

FilmDistrict

Would you believe it’s presented inconsistently? Physical objects can cross over to the Further, except when they can’t, and people stuck in the Further can make contact with people on our side of the death/life divide, except when they can’t. The geography of the Further is also frequently confusing, which seems like an unfair criticism to make about an afterlife dreamscape, but here we are.

In general, the portions of the films set in the Further are the least interesting parts of them. Wan is always better at suggesting something spooky than he is at actually showing it, and the Further inevitably devolves into a bunch of people in clothes from bygone eras making scary faces and running at whomever happens to be trapped there at the moment.

There are some cool production design choices — especially in the candle-festooned lair of the red-faced demon — and the constant use of smoke somehow remains haunting, instead of feeling like an effect at a low-grade rock concert. But by and large, the Further is an idea that’s more important to the series’ overriding mythology than to any one film in the series.

What do these movies say about America today?

The Lambert family in Insidious: Chapter 2.

Above all, the Insidious movies wish to reaffirm the primacy of the nuclear family.

FilmDistrict

Two theories:

1) The Insidious movies reflect our anxiety about the transition from analog to digital. The films have a refreshingly old-school charm to them, with characters using Viewmasters to check ultraviolet light filters, or watching spooky old VHS tapes. These movies seem to exist in a kind of 1995 hangover, complete with a bulky baby monitor that doesn’t even display video. There’s an implicit message here: if the dead are trying to contact us, they’re not going to be doing it via our smartphones. And that, in some ways, ties into our anxieties about technology.

2) The Insidious movies, like most other prominent horror franchises of the moment, are all about family. All three Insidious movies are about testing the primacy of the family unit. Even the third one features a family that has already been tested in the wake of the matriarch’s death, and early reviews suggest the whole story is rooted in grief over that. Meanwhile, Elise, Specs, and Tucker act more like a mother and her two squabbling sons than as a professional team of ghost hunters. This is in noted contrast to other famous horror movie franchises, which tend to be about peer groups who are picked off one by one by some faceless killer.

This may be why the Insidious films contain so little in the way of death — indeed, only one major character dies in the first two films, an extremely small total for a horror franchise. If you’re going to tell a story about a family and suggest this is the ultimate test the family will face, then the movie will have to end with everybody in that family alive and well, bonded all the more for what has happened to them.

Yet the obsession with the nuclear family is also present in franchises like Paranormal Activity and Sinister, to say nothing of films like The Babadook and The Conjuring. On some level, these films grapple with the idea of the nuclear family’s destruction at the hands of forces beyond its control, always reassuring the audience at the end that the family will prevail, because nothing is more eternal than love.

I compared Wan to Spielberg above, but there’s one fairly major difference between the two filmmakers. Spielberg’s early films often involved an absentee parent somewhere along the line. Wan’s movies involve two-parent households, where the point-of-view characters are parents who are terrified of what might happen to their kids, not kids who are wondering where their parent might be.

In that sense, perhaps the most important film in terms of inspiring the Insidious franchise is a film Spielberg produced in the early '80s, a film that was remade just recently: Poltergeist. In that series, a family is haunted and tested by ghosts that try to abduct one of their children. And in that series, a happy ending is found. The message is clear: the family might be threatened. The family might be in mortal peril. But the family will always survive.

Insidious: Chapter 3 is in theaters throughout the country. The first two films are available on DVD and for digital rental and download.