Catching Hell: Why the Ending of Insidious Makes Perfect Sense
Posted by CinemaPsycho on May 7, 2011
James Wan’s Insidious is easily my favorite movie of the year so far. I think it’s an awesome, extremely well done little shocker. It seems to be doing very well at the box office, with word-of-mouth keeping it in the Top 5 for most of its run. So obviously people are responding to it favorably in general, and I’m glad. However, there seems to be a contingent of people for whom this PG-13 ghost story simply isn’t “hardcore” enough, and that doesn’t really surprise me. However, several of the critics have remarked that the film’s ending doesn’t work – terms like “terrible”, “silly” and “over the top” have been used. This actually does surprise me, as the ending seemed absolutely perfect to me and made complete logical sense. I don’t know if people just aren’t paying attention to the film or if they just needed something to bitch about. So I’m going to do something I’ve never done before and may never do again – I’m going to give away the ending to the movie and explain exactly why it works. I’ll do it at the end of the column and I’ll give a big spoiler warning beforehand, so you can easily avoid reading it if you haven’t seen the movie yet. The movie’s been out for over a month now, so if you haven’t seen it by now I suggest you do so, because this is one horror movie that really needs to be seen in a darkened theater with an audience. I don’t feel I’m being unfair in giving the ending away here, because people have had plenty of time to see it and I’m letting you know well in advance before I do so. I feel it’s necessary in this case because some people apparently aren’t getting it, and I haven’t seen anyone else online try to explain it properly.
First I think I should talk a little about the movie itself, its success and its criticism. This won’t be so much a review as a discussion – I’ve already stated that I love the movie and I think it works extremely well, so that about covers my opinion. For those who haven’t seen it yet, here’s a basic plot description: Insidious is the story of married couple Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) whose son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) has fallen into a mysterious coma. They are informed by psychic/paranormal investigator Elise Rainer (Lin Shaye) that Dalton’s spirit has been captured by a malevolent ghost in a dark realm that Elise calls The Further. That’s all you need to know as far as the plot is concerned.
If it sounds a bit like Poltergeist and other modern ghost stories of its type, that’s completely by design. Wan and writer Leigh Whannell were the team who made the original Saw, and they have said in interviews that they were bothered by the “torture porn” label and set out to prove they could scare people without using blood and gore. Mission accomplished! If it’s not the most original concept (few horror films are totally original), that’s because it’s the execution that matters. Wan proves here once and for all that when it comes to freaking people out, he’s definitely got the goods. Insidious combines the anything-for-a-scare aesthetic of William Castle with the expert precision of ’60’s-era Polanski. What’s even more impressive is the way Wan and Whannell take a story that’s pretty much been done many times over and twist it just enough to make it newly effective and yes, genuinely scary.
And make no mistake, if you’re open to it, Insidious is absolutely fucking scary. I’m one of those people who almost never finds themselves creeped out by horror films; I’ve simply seen too many of them to really be affected by the usual shock treatment. But this movie freaked me the fuck out,and I ain’t ashamed to say so. I seriously thought I was going to have nightmares that night, and I haven’t felt that way after watching a horror film since I was a teenager. While the Paranormal Activity movies made me jump a couple of times, I wasn’t worried about how I would sleep after watching them. I can’t think of the last American horror film that had that kind of effect on people. While I actually liked Scream 4 (much more than I expected to), it’s Insidious that has really stuck with me the last few weeks, and it seems like a lot of people are responding the same way. I think that’s kind of awesome, personally. To me, that’s what a horror film should do – you should walk out of the theater unsettled, slightly rattled and a bit nervous about your own state of well-being. It’s been too long since I walked out of a horror film feeling like I’d just been put through the ringer. And it’s an exhilarating feeling, one that too few horror films generate these days.
Of course, with any success comes the inevitable backlash. There seems to be a certain contingent for whom Insidious is simply not “extreme” or “hardcore” enough for their tastes. And that’s fine, but I think the gorehounds are missing the point. I actually like the fact that there are different kinds of horror films – some use mood and atmosphere to freak you out, and some use blood and gore to gross you out. Why does it have to be one or the other? I’ve never understood why some people only respond to the latter. Most of my favorite horror films (and I would argue, some of the best) are classics like The Exorcist and The Shining that are all about freaking you out, not wall-to-wall bloodshed. More recently, films like The Ring and The Others proved that understated, low-key ghost stories could still be effective and frightening in the modern era. And then came the “torture porn” years… I’ve always kind of hated that term actually. I think it’s unfair and often inaccurate (for instance, I would argue that the Hostel movies are much smarter and more satirical than they’re given credit for) but suddenly, for many fans, horror became about how much of the red stuff you could put on the screen, not how scary your film could be.
Now it seems like the pendulum is swinging back towards the classic mood-and-atmosphere chills, and I for one couldn’t be happier about that. The gorehounds can cry all they want about these films not being “real horror”, but I think the opposite is actually true. For me, gore only works when a director knows where to put it and how to shoot it; for example, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead or Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator. When a movie is nothing but blood and gore, without any sense of artfulness or even a decent story, it doesn’t shock or offend me – it just bores me. I can’t tell you how many bad slasher films I’ve sat through where it’s all about the “kills” and nothing else – even the slashers of the late 70’s/early 80’s at least tried to generate some atmosphere. I guess some people just want to see bodies get sliced and diced, but again I think that’s missing the point. The best horror hits you where you live, literally – it gets you in a primal, unconscious place where you didn’t even know you could be frightened. I’m certainly not one to believe in ghosts or the supernatural – but the best of these movies actually make me question my own beliefs, at least for two hours. What if? Insidious is that kind of film, and the fact that they pulled it off with a paltry $1.5 million budget (practically nothing by Hollywood standards) and pure filmmaking skill just makes it all the more impressive to me. This movie gets to you, and doesn’t need excessive blood and gore to do it. What does it matter how a movie scares you, as long as it scares you?? Isn’t that what’s important?
For most audiences, I believe it is. And that’s why Insidious has become such a sleeper hit – because people are telling their friends, “this movie is actually scary”.That’s enough for people to want to check it out. Sure, there have been other recent horror films that deserved more word-of-mouth than they got – Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell being at the top of the list. But I also think this particular movie works for people because it’s something they can relate to – the possible loss of a child, a family in pain, all that Lifetime TV stuff that the movie turns on its ear. As in all the best horror, Insidious works partly because of the execution and partly because we come to care about these people. That’s something that the gorehounds just don’t get, and probably never will. But for those of us who actually want horror films to scare us (a bizarre thought, I know), Insidious is hands-down the movie of the year.
SPOILERS AHEAD – seriously, do not read beyond this point if you haven’t seen the film!
OK, I warned you. Here we go:
At the end of the movie, Josh is hypnotized to go into The Further to save his son. He brings the kid back, only to be possessed by a spirit himself. He kills Elise and the movie ends. Why does this make sense? Because:
Throughout the movie, there’s a ton of dialogue about Josh’s childhood, in which a spirit haunted and tried to possess him. Josh remembers none of this because his mother (Barbara Hershey) enlisted Elise to hypnotize him. This is why Josh doesn’t believe Elise when she tells him about his son’s being taken by the spirit. This is a variation on the traditional modern haunted-house movie in which the husband never believes what’s going on until it’s too late. In this case, Josh’s refusal to believe and his subsequent estrangement from the family is due to his childhood hypnosis being so strong.
Therefore, it makes perfect sense that Josh would be taken at the end, because he was the target all along! The kid was just the bait to bring Josh into The Further, where his body could finally be possessed. Hence the title. OK? Everybody got it now?
Now, whether you like the ending or not is up to you. But you can’t say it doesn’t make sense or that it comes out of nowhere. It’s all right there in the movie itself. I just explained it to you. Now stop saying that the ending sucks.