Written by: Leigh Whannell
Directed by: James Wan
Starring: Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, and Lin Shaye
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“It’s not the house that’s haunted…it’s your son.”
Creepy kids, haunted houses, and even demonic possession abound in Insidious, the latest film from the minds behind Saw; such subject matter is a far cry from that film, but Leigh Whannell and James Wan have set out to prove that they can be just as scary when they aren’t dealing in gruesome mutilations. TV spots for the film have featured a cryptic message that repeatedly (and perhaps annoyingly) assures us that “Insidious is…” something; now that the film has crept into theaters, I can say that “Insidious is” worth the wait and the somewhat obnoxious ad campaign.
The Lamberts are a typical family that have just moved into a new house; they’re almost picturesque--Josh is a teacher, while Renais is an aspiring musician. There’s three kids, including a newborn daughter. One day, the oldest son, Dalton, gets adventurous and wanders into the attic, where he ends up falling off of a ladder; the incident only leaves a minor bruise, but when he goes to sleep that night, he doesn’t wake up. Doctors find no sign of brain damage and even hesitate to call it a coma--he’s simply vegetative for no apparent reason. When the boy returns home (still in this condition), weird things begin to happen--Renais hears voices, and sees various specters roaming throughout the house, as it seems like something is haunting Dalton.
If Saw was Whannell and Wan’s tribute to hyper-violent giallo slashers and Dead Silence a throwback to pulpy ghost tales, then Insidious is their shout out to films like Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror. It’s particularly like an updated version of the former--and it’s a really sinister, wicked update at that. Like its title suggests, it creeps slowly and subtly, building suspense before kicking the door down in a riotous climax. Most of the film is a textbook example of how to effectively craft a supernatural tale--it knows that less is more, and Wan often uses the periphery of the frame to let you know something strange is definitely afoot. All the while, you’re kept guessing about what you are getting cursory glances of.
This is most definitely a chair-jumper film; however, unlike many modern horror films, it earns its jumps because you’re firmly entrenched in your seat first. Then you’re coaxed to the edge of it before Wan fires up some bizarre, twisted image or sound; indeed, this film is also a good example of how to use both sight and sound in concert to unnerve an audience. Not only is there a preponderance of weird, haunting noises, but Joseph Bishara’s score maniacally shrieks at all the right moments. Interestingly enough, I think one can make the argument that the audio and visuals are so creepy that the film manages to be effective even when its lights are on--a rare feat for a horror film. Of course, this is a film that mostly operates in darkness, as audiences are led through creepy hallways and staircases, always wary of what’s lurking around the corner.
And while the answer to all the madness is a bit exposition heavy, it still works well; the film stays in some familiar territory, but it puts its own unique spin on things as well. Let’s just say there’s a veritable battle royal happening on “the other side,” as everything from undead spirits to demons are just waiting to burst through. The culminating third act fully allows Wan to explore his imagination and gives him a chance to show off his visual skills. Here, he guides us through a twisted funhouse populated by doll-like corpses and the film’s central demon, who is like a weird mash-up of Freddy Krueger and Nosferatu. It does stray a bit from where the film starts off, and the hastily-realized wrap-up is far from perfect, but it’s a lot of fun watching the characters wade through hordes of horrific images and some cool, nicely designed set-pieces.
The quieter moments in the film work well too thanks to a fine cast. The inexplicable, tragic side of the story is channeled well through Byrne and Wilson, who react as you might expect parents to react--the former desperately seeks answers, while the latter retreats from the situation, perhaps out of disbelief. This naturally causes friction, but the film is wise not to dwell on this aspect any longer than it needs to. The delightful Lin Shaye essentially steps into Zelda Rubenstein’s shoes as a medium and gives a fun performance. Unexpected levity comes from screenwriter Whannell and Angus Sampson, who play a couple of nerdy ghost hunter types to assist Shaye; the two have some quirky, clever exchanges that lighten the mood just enough. And as a bonus, Barbara Hershey drops in as Wilson’s mom, just to round out an already solid cast.
Whether they like it or not, Wan and Whannell will probably always be chained to Saw; however, Insidious represents a fine attempt to hack their way out of those chains. It’s not quite that successful, but it re-establishes them as a must-see filmmaking duo. Don’t let the film’s PG-13 rating put you off: it will wreak havoc on an audience’s psyche if my screening was any indication. The howls and audible gasps created a theater atmosphere that rivaled the experiences I've had with the Paranormal Activity films. This is the type of movie that some people will have to watch through their fingers, as they’ll be too invested to fully look away. And if you’re among the initiated horror crowd, take it from me--Insidious is a blast, a throw-back to good-old fashioned creepshows that’s just as fun as it is terrifying. Buy it!
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