Insidious is one of my favourite films from the last few years – for me, it ticks all the boxes that I want in a scary film; lots of jumps with classic set-ups, sustained tension and perhaps more importantly for me… NO GORE! And one of the cool things about Insidious was the soundscape and the music, which we’re going to look at in this post. Again, I will be referring to the film for cues as well as the actual names for each track given on the soundtrack collection.
Joseph Bishara’s soundtrack is made up of many cues, ranging from just under 30 seconds to as long as 3 minutes, but you’ll notice right from the very start of this film – I’m talking about when the production company logos are twirling about – that this isn’t your normal kind of film score. Clattering, heavily reverbed noises clash without any rhythm as the logo comes on to the screen, followed by a ringing that lingers over the image of the light shade with director James Wan’s name. I like how the ringing effect combines with the rotation of the image to already give a slightly woozy effect, like something is off-kilter.
As the camera travels across the bedroom and round to what looks like a bathroom, we see a silhouette of someone in the window (this is at 1.01 in the video above). This is when I thought maybe I should leave the cinema, because this is where it gets messed up – those signature strings are first introduced in this moment. Strings hit screeching high notes and then tumble rapidly down only to start again, layered over one another and building up; these strings sound like screams or wails, and as the shot travels to the creepy old woman down the hall with the candle in her face and the light fades entirely, you think that’s it, the film is going to start. But then the glowing red title fills the screen with more strings, louder this time, clashing and battling against one another. I can distinctly hear the motif from the cyclone scene in The Wizard of Oz somewhere in this mess of strings.
Then we’re down to classic horror film territory with sustained, quiet strings – there’s an eery addition to this though; as the ‘shadows’ of the letters in the credits rise and evaporate, some background strings slide up, again like a distant wailing effect. The film hasn’t even started and we already know many rooms of the house as well as the fact that there’s something very creepy about it.
Musically nothing much happens until the scene where Dalton wakes up from his fall, but the use of sound is interesting here too – the creaking of the stairs is something we associate with old houses and it gives it that extra creepy edge. There’s also the crying baby, the children’s computer games and a whistling kettle for Renee to compete with in the hectic morning kitchen.
Quite honestly I’d rather they left out this next part, but it exists – Renai’s song, “Lookin’ West”
Everything about it is awful. Thankfully, the baby interrupts her song by crying, presumably because she can hear it. We get some weird house noises, drawing Renai up into the attic where the creaking sounds are a throwback to the noises we heard at the start. When Dalton falls and wakes up, we get an atmospheric, hollow sound along with the snapping, cracking noice associated with the demon later on in the film. When Renai and Josh realise something is wrong, a few piano hits are heard, punctuating the scene. These add a little to the drama, but in a more unconventional way because normally on these occasions in scary films, these hits are done by strings, and there’s some discernible chord (normally an augmented 4th) in there, whereas generally the scary moments in this film feature some wicked atonal music.
The mushy bit between Josh and Renai, where he tells her things will get better in the house and to just ‘give it time’ has a musical cue, and it is fairly conventional. Gently piano notes, sombre, slow-moving strings and proper harmonies. I think the conventional music over this scene is a signifier, like dramatic irony or something; in a soundtrack where the music ignores most conventions, this moment of ‘normal’ film music is the exception, and we shouldn’t hope to hear much more like it in the film until everything really is okay.
When Dalton doesn’t wake up, there’s a return of those reverberating strings, lower this time both in pitch and volume, with a cue entitled ‘unawakened mvmt 1’. Strings rock back and forth before the scene ends and shows that 3 months have passed since Dalton first fell into his ‘coma’. A second musical cue starts basically straight after, called ‘unawakened mvmt 2’. This has a more middling, repetitive piano ostinato and a mournful cello, with no particular melody or chord structure to it, atmospheric music to just add to the sombre situation. Honestly, it seems like it was written by dragging and dropping notes into manuscript software – we’ve all been there, music students, am I right? I’m right.
A high sustained string opens our next music cue, ‘voices in the static’, where Renai hears, well, voices in the static of the baby monitor (the video above is in German, but the music doesn’t change of course). She walks into the hall as we hear the high sustained violin, which is followed by the violins sliding up and down in opposite directions which combines beautifully with the rotating camera work (again rotating around a circular light, like the opening credits) for a dizzying, wailing effect. There’s something chilling and unnerving about this cue, and 30 seconds into it as the voices get louder and climax with the terrifying ‘NOW!”, the music changes to the clattering, reverberating sounds we heard before. This effect is made by using a ‘prepared piano’, which basically means taking a piano and placing crap on the strings and doing other stuff to it, then seeing what happens when you press the keys. Bishara stated in an interview that he found an old ‘rusted piano shell’ and used it for the score, which sounds to me like he used a prepared piano.
Kind of a poor quality video, but this is the next musical moment in the film, when the baby monitor draws Renai into the baby’s room where she sees the creepy ghost behind the crib. There’s no build to the musical hit, and that’s one of the reasons why this film works so well, the scares are not set up by obvious musical cues that audiences have become used to.
We get some general incidental music reappearances from old themes and cues in the next few scenes; a slightly altered version of ‘unawakened (mvmt2)’plays briefly and quietly while Renai talks to the home nurse about Dalton, ending with an atmospheric build up as she notices the red hand print on the bedsheets.
Next, it’s window guy!
Another classic high sustained violin over low tremolos to build up to when he suddenly appears inside the room, followed by another of his prepared piano clangs and a screeching noise which I assume is meant to be him screaming. As an audience, we’re thinking ‘how the hell did he – how did – what the?!’ and the music isn’t helping; it’s clattering, disconnected and erratic, meant to jangle our nerves like the scene just did.
There’s some forgettable filler music when we see the moving vans, and a repeated solo ‘wail’ from a string instrument when Lorraine looks at the picture of Josh – it’s so fleeting, but it’s enough to make us think at this point that there might be something significant about it. The next scene features two pieces of pre-existing music, one of which features heavily and practically makes it one of the most memorable scenes in the films.
Starting with a slice of Einaudi, the musical equivalent of ready salted crisps, Renai walks through the house clearing up rubbish while listening to the gentle piano music on vinyl, but as she steps outside the record starts to scratch and skip, and suddenly we hear the bizarre Tiptoe Through the Tulips by Tiny Tim. When she looks through the window, a creepy-ass kid is dancing away without a care in the world. He disappears when she moves to another window, and there are only one or two bits of music in this scene, such as a held note as Renai looks through the bedroom door before the rocking horse starts to move on its own, and then very quiet high, sustained, dissonant static strings which gradually crescendo as she approaches the cupboard with a hockey stick. There’s a stab with the strings as she pushes the curtain aside to find nothing, and then to catch us off guard he jumps out of the top with a bang and the quiet yet screeching strings return once more.
While Lorraine talks about when she first encountered the creature in Dalton’s room, ‘it said it was a visitor’ starts during the story; another high sustained string, with a brief whirl of strings and then some low tremolo strings build the tension, before a break in the music then another hit as that terrifying red-faced demon appears behind Josh. Another hit when they find Dalton’s room has been wrecked, with a sombre cello line leading to the end of the scene.
It’s worth mentioning again how the sounds in horror films can build suspense in the same way music can. Footsteps, creaking doors and floorboards, and in this case even the rhythmic clicks and whirrs of the ‘ghost-hunting’ equipment. Just prior to the start of ‘hallway twins’, Tucker clicks the filters on his device before he can see the two creepy girls by the door, and when they appear it’s a high string stab followed by some high tremolos and a build up of chattering, winding strings.
When Elise describes what she can see so that Specs can draw it, the ‘hooves for feet’ cue builds gently and steadily underneath. Again, mid to low tremolo strings rising at the end of the phrase, followed by wittering high strings and then the spiralling, dizzy layered strings. The fan on the light is spinning, and the shot alternates between looking up at the fan and looking down at Elise, adding to the dizzy, unsteady effect. Elise’s explanation of ‘the Further’ has a cue of the same name, which is the longest cue on the soundtrack, and actually seems longer because it is more or less seamlessly connected to the piece that follows it. ‘The Further’ features the clattering effects in the background, scuttling along as the trembling string motifs sway in and out while Elise describes how Dalton has been doing astral projection for many years. As she starts to explain to Renai the sinister aspects of ‘the further’, a fast, steady electronic bass pulse starts while two violin motifs drift around, before moving back into the rising, wailing strings.
An interesting thing to note is that much of the score was written before filming began, so Bishara’s music isn’t written to specific visual cues; instead, the music was recorded and James Wan editing the tracks into the final cut of the film. The soundtrack is scary enough in itself, but it also explains some of the more bland offerings such as the previous mushy bits and the part that follows here, where Josh sends Elise, Specs and Tucker home. Josh realises the significance of Dalton’s paintings over the musical cue ‘broken open’, of which only the first half is used – more of the same generic slow-moving cellos and viola with gentle piano notes picked out.
There’s yet more high sustained strings in this next part, where Elise is using a gas mask and somehow communicating with the spirits. Amidst the noise that ensues in this scene, there are three musical cues intertwined – ‘gas mask vision’, ‘muted whisperings’ and ‘leave this vessel’.
Bits and pieces of each are used accordingly; the pulsing electronic bass and guttural synths from gas mask vision’ lead into the whinnying, chilling dissonant strings from ‘muted whispers’ and then the harsh, shrill chords on the violin along with the rumbling from the prepared piano in ‘leave this vessel’ combine with the sound effects from the on-screen action to round off this claustrophobic, panicky scene. Dizzy strings again (think zoom in/pan out but for music not video) when Specs and Tucker look at the photo of the demon behind Dalton; clearly Wan and Bishara meant for this to be the demon’s leitmotif.
Lorraine tells the story of Josh’s night terrors and the old lady from the photos, which is scored with ‘night terror’ – quiet screeching strings in the background, whirling around and building up with vibrato, and – yet again – a sustained string. We get a condensed version of the music from the opening credits when the title first appeared, albeit very quietly but it’s still a recognisable callback to those laughing strings. When the ‘night terror’ cue finishes, another one starts immediately, entitled ‘bring him back’; this is a short piece for cello and piano which has a fleeting resemblance to a lullaby at one point, and there is a sense of yearning and hope in this music.
‘Into the further’ is a much deeper piece than we’ve been used to in this soundtrack, which has been full of high pitched strings. A rumbling, deep synth sound blares as Josh realises he is astral-projecting, and the music takes on an eerie, sci-fi quality with electronic synths and what I think sounds like samples of a man wailing or moaning mixed into it. As Josh walks through the house, there is the occasional hit to punctuate a jumpy bit, and at one stage there is a improvised whistling to accompany him which is diegetic (remembeeeeeeer?), coming from the male ghost sitting on the couch. The buzzing electronic synths return when Josh fights the long-haired spirit by the red door, and then we get to where Josh enters the lair of the demon, with a cue entitled, er, ‘into the lair’. Another sustained high note in the strings is scratched out, with a rhythmic percussive accompaniment as the shot moves through the red corridors. When Josh finally sees Dalton, the strings begin layering harmonies for the emotional reunion, with some dissonance as they aren’t in the clear yet – Dalton points out the demon to his father, and we hear ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ again. The next cue, ‘he’s looking at us’ corresponds to that line in the film, and the strings fall back into the old habits of the frantic, angry tumbling motion, building faster and faster and with the addition of some notes on the prepared piano to add more chaos to the already frightening scene as Josh and Dalton try to escape.
Back in the house, the spirits are starting to enter the house from ‘The Further’ and the numerous clangs and scratches add to the tension; more clatters from the prepared piano and the whirling strings make this even more unsettling, and the occasional rapid stabbing motion from the violins just makes this scene even more energetic. All the music and noise keep building in texture and volume, creating a very overwhelming and claustrophobic sensation, and there isn’t really a climactic moment in this piece; instead, music just sort of peters out and leads into a cue called ‘the child awake’, with more schmaltzy strings and piano in another ‘drag and drop’ sounding piece. Apparently there are two separate piece of music here but they are so similar and both so insipid, it’s hard to notice – the second is ‘a new world’, and it’s exactly like ‘the child awake’.
As Elise realises that everything is not quite right, she takes a photograph of Josh just to be sure. ‘Dark boundaries crossed’ reintroduces the whinnying strings and frantic, noisy nature from the previous moments in the film, as the tension and volume are quickly built up again around Josh and Elise’s struggle. There’s a slow, deliberate string motif repeated over and over as Renai looks at the camera and we get a flashback to show us what Elise saw before she died. The click of the camera breaks through the music, and after a moment of silence, we end with the clattering prepared piano, a short bit of dialogue and then one last burst of the screeching strings for good measure.
Thanks for sticking with me on this one, I love the film and the soundtrack and hope this has been an interesting read.