How Insidious and The Conjuring use the classic horror tension formula to create some of the best scenes of suspense in recent decades
The argument could be made that we are in a horror renaissance. Original horror movies, in particular, have been taking the limelight and propelling the genre past traps that it has fallen into in recent years. However, one filmmaker has been treading on old formulas and retooling them to create some smart horror recently. That filmmaker is James Wan. While I don’t think his movies are perfect, especially Insidious, he has perfected a horror formula that has been used in horror classics and repurposed them in modern settings. So, with Halloween coming up I thought it might be the perfect time to analyze two keys scenes that use this formula so well.
Insidious: A smart practice in tension that is squandered in the third act
Insidious is by no means a perfect horror movie. I need to put that out there right from the beginning. But the first two-thirds of the movie nail what the movie is at its core: a ghost story. Wan very smartly works the audience from the beginning by unsettling us with key imagery that sets the mood for the movie. That coupled with the perennially dark setting creates an atmosphere that is unrelenting (that is until the final third, but we’ll get there in a bit).
However, one of the smartest things that Wan does is show a lot restraint. A huge trend in the 2000s horror genre was the cold open that was this initial scare that was supposed to come in place of real mood building. Even strong movies like The Descent and The Ring did it. Instead, Insidious sees a slow but steady build. No long set up. No character introductions. We’re dropped into their world, but immediately know who they are as a family. Wan takes the time to earn the big scares. Take this scene for example:
Notice that nothing shocking happens in the first two minutes of the clip. The knock on the door isn’t meant to be a scare. There’s no music in the background. He doesn’t want to let the tension go too soon. He takes his time on the door to build it further. When nothing happens we’re put into a false sense of security when Rose Byrne gets up to check on the baby. Then we get the big scare of the man in the nursery with a clang of music that quickly dissipates, which puts us in another false sense of security. When we go back downstairs we get a subtle but unsettling image of the door being wide open.
Wan does this again later in the movie when the family moves to a different home, just as effectively. The horror elements of the movie are a clear call back to movies like The Changeling and The Poltergeist. The clown scene is a perfect example of this. However, what makes the first two-thirds of this movie so strong is the dynamic between the two leads, Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson. Byrne’s character Renai takes the brunt of the paranormal activity. She is mentally worn down to the point that she will do anything to solve the problem. Wilson’s Josh, on the other hand, will not accept that the family is haunted.
Even before the haunting, we get a pretty clear portrait into the couple’s life. Renai is a worn down musician who is trying to hold it down at home while her husband is at work. We get a sense that there is some tension when Josh doesn’t seem to take as much familial responsibility, so when the haunting increases and Josh is nowhere to be found that tension comes to a head. Of course, we learn later on that this is because of points in Josh’s past.
The reason the third act doesn’t hold up is because of the clear mood shift. Once Elise’s team comes into the picture, a medium that Josh’s mother suggests helps, the film shifts to a black comedy that doesn’t match the first off. More than that, the plot becomes to muddled in a twist that goes on too long. It almost feels like the studio decided what the final act should be. This is so well demonstrated when we watch a demon sharpening his nails while listening to some ironically cheerful music. Insidious falls into the trap that most horror movies fall into nowadays: the third act twist.
Because of the mechanics of the twist and the flashes of humor, the tension is immediately gone for most of the act. And when Wan tries to ratchet it up again, it feels artificial (the slow-moving ghosts, the classic electricity goes out trope).
The Conjuring: A practice in slowly adding tension throughout the entire film
This brings me to Wan’s horror follow-up, The Conjuring. Based on the case files of real-life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring takes a different approach to most ghost stories by focusing first on the paranormal investigators. Unlike Insidious, The Conjuring does begin with a cold open which features an entirely different case from the one focused on in the movie. This opening followed by the slow crawling title text is taken straight from The Exorcist. However, the reason the cold open works here is because we need to see what Ed and Lorraine do from the start and there really is no way to show that without showing a case.
From here though we are treated to the same slow-building scares we see in Insidious. This time, we are trained for scares not in just one scene, but the entire movie.
Note: If you haven’t seen The Conjuring (then I’m not completely sure why you’re reading this in the first place), there are some spoilers coming up in the next few paragraphs.
Hide-and-clap is the perfect example of the slow build scare. We are first introduced to the game when the four girls of the Perron family, the case that the Warrens take on, are playing in their new house. It is a fun and light scene that adds ease to the game. However, when the youngest daughter in the family asks for a game with the mother, played incredibly here by Lili Taylor, it takes on a more threatening tone when the claps are discovered to not be coming from the daughter.
Based on that set-up, we are trained to know that something involving this game is going to end up being a scare. That’s what this scene is:
There’s a lot to break down in this scene, so bear with me. Before this scene we hear claps again late at night. Of course Carolyn, the mother, thinks it’s here children. But when we see them all fast asleep we know something more sinister is happening. The pictured hung up the staircase are then knocked down which leads Carolyn downstairs. The lack of music in this scene punctuates the tension. When the basement door opens we are expecting a scare when she goes down. Instead, she goes up which relieves the tension. So, when the door closes we are not expecting it. Again, the tension begins to build when nothing happens in the basement. However, when something does happen, the ball, we are taken aback because we are expecting a bigger scare. When the lights go out and she lights the match we know from past horror experiences that on the third light something is going to happen. When we do get to that third match we’re expecting something to be there when it’s lit. Nothing happens until a beat later when hands clap right next to her, bringing the entire scare full circle.
It’s this carefully mapped out and timed scare that makes The Conjuring so effective. It’s this tension that acts as a red herring for most of the movie that makes it so terrifying. Unlike Insidious though, The Conjuring stays the course and uses minimal CGI to simply enhance the scares rather than beeing the scare.
Across both films, the use of mundane imagery to translate horror is truly where Wan’s strength lies. The rolling of a ball, an open door that was locked, a pair of hands clapping are the true horror images of these films. But what makes the last third of Insidious ineffective and the second Conjuring film is the over reliance on CGI and overly complicated compositions to convey horror. We didn’t need to see the demon crawling on the walls or the crooked man. All we needed to see is this mundane imagery that seeps into our daily routine to truly terrify us.