- Devilish Good or Diabolically Derivative?

Ghosts, spooks & spoilers!

For a spoiler-free review click here

And here we are again, for another investigation of Insidious but now as the movie is safely out of the theatres and on disc for your home viewing pleasure, with the spoiler gloves off. Now if you’re a dyed-in-the-shroud horror fan or a seasoned film buff, while you may concede that Insidious is rather nicely executed, there may also be questions over the originality of its story. To the jaded movie-goer, Insidious could easily appear to be nothing more than the bastard child of Poltergeist and Paranormal Activity. And so the main reason for a second piece on this movie is to explore the question of how derivative the movie actually is and how much original concepts are actually worth.

Now there’s an old, much belaboured saw that states there are only a handful of basic stories and that every tales, be it in told by a campfire, printed in a book, acted out on a stage, broadcast on TV or shown in the cinema, is just a variation of one of these parent plots. However I tend to take this claim with a pinch of salt, mainly as different sources offer different numbers for these primal tales (see here for details on the various tallies proffered). But there is an element of truth in this concept, in that no matter what fashion a creator shapes their chosen tale, you can bet that some one else had done something similar beforehand.

And these days we are more aware than ever before of the vast sea of stories. In the 1993 novel Virtual Light by William Gibson, the police of the near future Bridge have developed a software system called Separated At Birth, designed for finding missing persons. And it operates by scanning in an image of some one who has disappeared and the computer generates a list of celebrities that they resemble, and thus cleverly simplifying the descriptions cops must reel out to potential witnesses. An ingenious idea to be sure, but now in our modern world where films, TV and books are being produced in ever increasing numbers and with access to pop culture’s entire back catalogue becoming proportionally more accessible through cyberspace, effectively we are all running Separated At Birth in our own heads. Any new piece of media, be it a book, film, TV show and even music, can be quickly described as ‘like A meets B’ or ‘a cross between X and Y with a dash of Z’.

Like Gibson’s future software, it’s a quick and convenient way to describe something by using common reference points as a form of critical short-hand. However there is a line to be drawn here, for there is a marked difference between a work being similar in theme or tone to something that came before and outright creative theft. And in this respect, Insidious can be seen as a test case for defining this line.

So then, first off, which side of the line does Insidious fall in regards to Poltergeist? Certainly there are parallels in the two stories – a suburban family being troubled by spook occurrences, the ghosts becoming increasingly threatening, the calling of ghost busters and a psychic, and perhaps most importantly a child being abducted and then rescued from the malevolent entities. Now to be fair, three of the four elements listed here are commonplace in movie hauntings, and furthermore you can convincingly argue that Poltergeist.was just lifting these motifs from Robert Wise’s The Haunting and Legend of Hell House. Indeed the Spielberg/Hooper haunted house rollercoaster does borrow from a wide range of sources – as Jeremy Dyson points out in his book Bright Darkness the memorable scene where the ghosts become visible as ethereal figures coming down the stairs is ‘borrowed’ from 1944 film The Uninvited, and Spielberg had also previously used the look of the ghost for the spirits manifesting at the opening of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Now as for the spectral kidnapping, as the excellent Nuts4r2 points out in his own review of Insidious, the whole business of Carol Ann vanishing and communicating with her parents as a disembodied voice is extremely similar to an old Twilight Zone episode ‘Little Girl Lost’. Indeed there is what we may generously term, a closer ‘family resemblance’ between this edition of Rod Serling’s legendary show and Poltergeist than there is between Insidious and Spielberg’s movie.

In fact, when you examine the facts closely, the similarity is only really superficial. In Poltergeist, Carol Anne is physically spirited away into the ghostly dimensions, whereas in Insidious young Dalton simply falls into a coma with only his soul held captive. Additionally, it should be noted that will JoBeth Williams ventures into the nether realms to rescue her daughter, we never actually see the Other Side and this sequence doesn’t form either the main focus of the plot or the climax of the movie.

Actually Dalton’s fate is closer to that of Dylan in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare: the demonic Freddy drags him off to his dream world lair and his mother (Heather Langenkamp) must induce a trance and journey into the Otherworld to rescue him, just like Josh must enter the Further to find Dalton in Insidious. And that’s not the only echo of Mr Krueger’s exploits...

But to get back to the matter in hand, while Insidious and Poltergeist undoubtedly share some elements, the majority are the common fabric of cinematic haunted houses and the kidnapping plot thread is similar, it doesn’t really match up. And as Poltergeist is something of a cinematic magpie in itself, it seems somewhat hypocritical to accuse Insidious of ripping it off. It’s more of case they are cut from the same cloth, and the area they most resemble each other is in structure – both are ghost trains that start subtly with the haunting in shadows but then pick up speed and let fly with special effects bringing the spectres into full view.

And perhaps more importantly, Poltergeist throws it’s credibility and therefore its creep factor right out of the window fairly early on when Carol Ann vanishes and ILM are allowed to go berserk. Whereas Insidious stays more plausible right until the end – the Further may be a too fantastical conceit for some viewers but as it is an inner space sequence rather than a physical manifestation, even when the ghosts are materialising all round the cast in the finale, it’s still more plausible than a tree trying to scoff down a child or a house being sucked into the Void. Now don’t get me wrong, Poltergeist is great fun but it doesn’t maintain an atmosphere of dread as well as Insidious.

However the parallels between Paranormal Activity and Insidious are somewhat thornier, and no doubt those of a cynical persuasion may be wondering whether it was the similarities in the story lines that landed Oren Peli an executive producer credit. For while we can discount much of the first act of Insidious being similar to Paranormal Activity as all those mystery noises, half glimpsed things and general creepiness are classic elements for any haunting, other elements look, well, a bit hooky.

The first thing that leaps out is the fact that both hauntings are focused upon a person and not a place. Now this is an unusual twist for the standard movie ghost story and it seems unlikely that two movies would feature it independently. Although it’s not impossible – if you start doing a little research into real life hauntings, you will very quickly discover that the most cinematic of all spectral action is poltergeist activity and these cases often centre around a person; there is often one individual how acts as a focus and the assorted phenomena increases when they are present and likewise decreases or even stops when they are not. So it could be argued that there is a real world inspiration for this plot twist.

On the other hand though, having the haunting attached to a person rather than a place is a neat way of short circuiting the usual logical flaw in haunted house movies – why don’t the characters just move! Of course, as both Kim Newman and Stephen King have pointed out with reference to The Amityville Horror if you’ve bought a property, there’s complicated financial reasons blocking just upping sticks and going elsewhere. However as true as this is, for a general audience the question of why a group of people seemingly choose to stay in a place that is blatantly haunted to buggery and not run from the hills is seen as a classic example of characters being unrealistically stupid in horror films.

And considering how Insidious and Paranormal Activity use this device in different ways, it strongly suggests that the haunted person concept originates from script mechanics. In Peli’s film, it is presented as an onscreen reason why Micha and Katie can’t just move out, whereas in Wan’s movie, although it provides the same function for the story logic, it is used more as a classic plot twist. But also there is one notable cinematic precedent for the ghostly goings-on being attached to a an individual character....

Poltergeist poster

...The sequels to Poltergeist. Yes, like those famous upwardly burrowing coffins, the influence of the Spielberg/Hooper ghost train once again is rising from the grave again. For as the Freeling house had imploded and was sucked into a supernatural void at the close of the first movie, when the sequel machine was belatedly activated several years later, both Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) and Poltergeist III (1988) had the restless spirits turning up wherever the original haunting’s focus, daughter Carole Anne, happened to be.

However the spectral shenanigans in Insidious also share another element with Paranormal Activity; namely that the nature of the supernatural threat isn’t merely restless human spirits but a demonic force. Again it looks like Whannel and Wan cribbing from Peli, or at least the executive producer recycling his own plot elements. But this switch from the spectral to the diabolic can be traced to older sources. Although the later sequels fudged the issue with an under the radar recon, introducing the apocalypse cult preacher Kane as the ringmaster of the supernatural circus, in the original Poltergeist the initial traditional spookery was soon revealed to be directed by a satanic force dubbed ‘the Beast’.

But in the same year as Poltergeist was released, Amityville II: The Possession was also conflating ghosts with demons. And it should be noted that in the original Amityville Horror, both the *ahem* non-fiction book and the movie – both of which are an obvious influence on the troubles of the Freelings – had a distinctly post-Exorcist dash of the satanic in the alleged hauntings.

Now, one of the greatest writers of ghost stories, MR James, once remarked he had little use for ghosts that were not malevolent and indeed as I have previously explored many of the entities haunting his tales besides being extremely hostile are distinctly non-human. And indeed in supernatural fiction across the border, ghosts in stories, whether haunting the page or the screen, behave a good deal more anti-socially than they do in reports of hauntings in the real world. And so it is not uncommon to find the spectral shading into the demonic and arguable this tendency may well be a direct result of the influence of James’ celebrated tales.

So then the introduction of the demonic in Paranormal Activity isn’t exactly an as original twist to the haunted house tale as it would first appear. However the final fate of Josh does mirror that of Katie in the general release version of Paranormal Activity - both end up possessed and murderous. However despite the similarities of both endings, it should be noted that the two films take very different route getting there. Whereas in Paranormal Activity Katie is clearly the target for the evil forces, Josh becoming the victim is more of a surprising final twist, that last scare that is almost a necessity in a mainstream horror movie (a trend popularised by Brian De Palma’s Carrie back in 1976).

And seen in this light, the end of Insidious is not so different to countless other fright films where this closing shock has one of the heroes taken over or consumed by the supposedly vanished dark forces – the classic example of this being the last shot in the 1978 Philip Kaufman remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers where Donald Sutherland is revealed to have become one of the pod people.

Now I do have issues with the close of Insidious (which we’ll wrap this piece up with) but being derivative is not one of them. Now partly this is because my preferred version of Paranormal Activity is the one that screened at various film festivals and featured a very different ending, but mainly it is because I feel that again it’s a case of both Wan and Peli’s films using the same trope, rather one stealing from another. And like many other elements we have examined so far, once you start looking to establish a precedent you discover countless similarities in the archives of weird fiction.

Both films that one may accuse Insidious of mainly plundering from, Poltergeist and Paranormal Activity were in themselves highly genre literate, drawing from a range of horrors than span decades. And Insidious itself is equally the product of minds immersed in the same field. To rattle those Spielberg/Hooper chains one final time, you could argue that the Further is just a revamp of The Other Side from the first sequel. However you could equally compare this foray into a psychic nether world to the dream sequences of the Nightmare on Elm Street series or indeed the mental worlds conjured up in the under-seen gem Dreamscape which Freddy’s exploits overshadowed. Furthermore the dead spirits trapped in the Further and their strange slightly surreal world could be inspired by the lost spectres in Carnival of Souls. And when these denizens of the Further manifest in the real world, breaking through the doors and windows we are in Night of the Living Dead country.

Carnival of Souls

The restless dead from Carnival of Souls

You can see the problem here, the more you pick the more parallels you can find. But increasingly it is an exercise in pouncing upon any similarity and the allegations of being derivative start sounding like some mental conspiracy theory. For example, some have dismissed the demon as just being a rip-off of Darth Maul because they both have red faces and yellow eyes. But this Sith Lord was clearly designed to evoke the look of a traditional devil (indeed this was a specific design decision as you can read here), so it is hardly surprising that there is a family resemblance; arguably then it is Lucas stealing from medieval imagery rather than Insidious pilfering from The Phantom Menace.

Failing to establish proper context then will lead to nonsensical claims. For example, if one ignores the traditional portrayal of demons, you could equally tenuously allege that because we see a close-up shot of the demon trotting along on cloven hooves Wan, is ripping of the Red Dwarf episode Terrorform which also has a satanic monster trip-tripping along on its hooved feet too.

Therefore while we could endlessly play spot the parallel and delve further and further into the canon of fantastic fiction, without weighing up the context in which the imagery or plot elements appear will get us nowhere. Now I don’t doubt that some of the aspects of Insidious that we have discussed may well be respectful tips of the hat to past greats but the majority I feel are simply similarities due to working in the same territory. And furthermore, even if Insidious is guilty of being a creative magpie, then it is drawing so many sources it cannot be held to be a rip-off of one single work or even a derivative x+y mash-up.

Now truly derivative movies slavishly steal wholesale, taking entire plots and effectively just tweaking the character and location names, as anyone who has endured any of the endless stream of straight to video clones of Night of the Living Dead or Alien can attest. However it should also be noted that a movie can be thoroughly unoriginal and yet still deliver the goods. For example, Fulci’s Zombi 2 (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters) is an unashamed Romero cash-in and yet it is still regarded as a classic in its own right.

The key point here is that while a fresh plot concept may well make for a classic movie, it’s no guarantee of quality; after all there are legions of movies that misfire despite having new and interesting ideas at their core. Basically, to borrow one of the rules of comedy, it’s the way you tell ‘em’ that matters. You may have the most original script in the world but if you’ve got a cast of planks and a monkey directing, one star oblivion awaits.

And undoubtedly Insidious does what it does with great panache. Indeed if a movie can raise the hairs on the back of this jaded horror fan’s neck that is a true mark of quality. And while you may not have been entirely convinced by my defence of the shared elements in the plot, it has to be said that it also brings plenty of fresh ideas to the table – the concept of astral travel is a fascinating one and should there be a sequel I’d like to see the Further explored in more depth. That said though, ideally I’d prefer it if this film was allowed to stand alone as a complete story, undiminished extending the mythos to breaking point and beyond with endless sequels.

So then let’s wrap this up with my one significant niggle with the ending as mentioned above. Now my quibble is that that the way the last scenes were set up made it far too obvious what was going to happen. Now yes, we’re all very used to the fake ‘all is well’ ending that gets trumped by a final shock in horror movies, and indeed as soon as we cut to Specs and Tucker loading up their gear into their van and having some banter it was clear it wasn’t all over.

But that’s not the problem because rather than one last BOO! Insidious has a rather neat coda that ties up some loose threads. Now what was delivered was fine in itself, but I did feel it could have benefitted from a tighter execution which in my mind would have made it all the scarier. Essentially the concept is excellent but the way it plays out gives the audience far too much time to get to the shock before it is revealed. So then, with a brief pause to mention that I am available for script doctor duties, here’s how I would have cut it...

After the afore-mentioned van based banter, we cut back to the house and Elsie and Josh talking. However instead of showing us the photograph showing the Scary Old Witch and Josh strangling Elise, we should cut away as she takes the photo and see the merest beginnings of Josh’s reaction. Instead we go straight to Renai and hear the screams. Then when she goes and investigates we see her find Elsie’s body and then have her pick up the camera and the photography which would show the Old Witch has merged with Josh. Then have her hear just a voice, possibly Josh but make it hard to tell, then she turns and the screen goes to black. And instead of the credits rolling we should have the very final image that currently appears after the last text has scrolled... The Old Witch blowing out the candle...

...Now that would have been a lot more terrifying. Not only would it have created a greater distance between the end of this movie and Paranormal Activity but it would have meant everyone would have seen that final atmospheric image which I’m betting a lot of you missed...

The Old Witch

JIM MOON, 12th September 2011