Director : James Wan
Screenplay : Leigh Whannell
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Patrick Wilson (Josh Lambert), Rose Byrne (Renai Lambert), Ty Simpkins (Dalton Lambert), Andrew Astor (Foster Lambert), Lin Shaye (Elise Rainier), Leigh Whannell (Specs), Angus Sampson (Tucker), Barbara Hershey (Lorraine Lambert), Corbett Tuck (Nurse Adelle / Doll Girl #2), Heather Tocquigny (Nurse Kelly), Ruben Pla (Dr. Sercarz), John Henry Binder (Father Martin), Joseph Bishara (Lipstick-Face Demon), Philip Friedman (Old Woman), J. LaRose (Long Haired Fiend), Kelly Devoto (Doll Girl #1)
A well-orchestrated mix of foreboding atmosphere, discordant music, and visual freak-outs, James Wan’s Insidious is an old-fashioned chiller that elicits memories of creaky haunted house movies and paranoid possession thrillers. Eschewing both the low-res videocam aesthetic of recent ghost movies like Paranormal Activity (2009) and the vicious gore that Wan himself helped repopularize with Saw (2004), Insidious is surprisingly and refreshingly old-fashioned in its approach, even as it is constantly marked with over-the-top flourishes and nods that remind us of its self-aware place in a long lineage of similar stories (the manner in which Wan has the massive, hellish title card explode onto the screen with a shrieking musical arrangement is both a foreshadowing of the terror to come and a nod to the filmmaker’s own indulgences). The house may creak, but the movie doesn’t.
The story, as such stories tend to do, centers around an attractive, seemingly “normal” family that has just moved into a large, rambling Gothic Revival-style house in the suburbs. The father, Josh (Patrick Wilson), is a schoolteacher, while the mother, Renai (Rose Byrne), is a singer/songwriter who has put her career on hold to raise their three children: 8-year-old Dalton (Ty Simpkins), 5-year-old Foster (Andrew Astor), and a baby daughter. It isn’t long, though, before strange things start happening, like boxes inexplicably disappearing and then turning up in the corner of the enormous attic and books mysteriously falling off a shelf. Dalton takes a spill in the attic, and the next day is in a coma-like state that the doctors can’t figure out; tests show no brain damage, and it is as if he has gone to sleep and can’t awake. From there, things start turning, well, truly insidious, as Renai hears increasingly menacing voices over the baby monitor and begins seeing and hearing various figures moving about the house in increasingly violent ways. The children seem to be the primary target of the ghostly intrusions, which means that the parents’ terror is less about their own safety than their inability to protect their offspring.
Unlike most people in horror movies, Josh and Renai are senible enough to pick up and move to another house. Although he is supportive of Renai and her fears, Josh is not convinced that the house was actually haunted, even though he had seen his share of strange occurrences and heard plenty of weird noises. The move, however, doesn’t solve the problem because the haunting follows them to the new house and even intensifies, which drives Renai first to bring in a psychic (Lin Shaye) who is recommended by Josh’s mother (Barbara Hershey), whose quick willingness to believe her daughter-in-law suggests that she has had previous experience with the supernatural. The psychic arrives with a pair of paranormal investigators (Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell, the latter of whom also wrote the script), and they quickly discover that this is not a simple haunting, but rather a collision of dimensions in which demonic forces are trying to break through into our world using Dalton’s slumbering body as a vessel.
Whannell’s script ties together a number of tropes that will be familiar to anyone who has seen The Exorcist (1973), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Amityville Horror (1979), and Poltergeist (1982), but let’s be honest: We don’t go to horror movies for originality. Rather, we go for an experience in which we temporarily leave the everyday and are confronted with something terrifying, which, when done right, transcends the familiarity of the genre norms and makes us feel like we’re seeing something entirely new. Insidious doesn’t quite do that, but it comes tantalizingly close, reminding us that old-fashioned chills derived via roving camerawork and creative sound design still work for those who have imagination and a willingness to give themselves over to the story. Much like Paranormal Activity (whose director, Oren Peli, served as producer here), Insidious puts you constantly on edge by teasing you with suggestion and then jarring you with sudden appearances and revelations. It’s a cheap tactic, to be sure, but so are slow climbs and sudden descents on roller coasters.
Wan orchestrates the scares with real finesse, holding the tension to nearly unbearable lengths before bringing something into our field of vision, the most effective being a fleeting glimpse of a horrible figure hiding behind a curtain in the baby’s room (Wan also works in some genuinely uncanny imagery, including a family of smiling, doll-like ghosts and a demonic figure sharpening his fingers while listening to “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”). He has a good sense of what is scary and discomfiting, and while the effect begins to lessen toward the end of the film, he never quite loses the intensity, which is probably why the story moves fully into an alternate dimension in which nightmare logic can take over completely. At this point, much like Poltergeist, the film becomes a bit too hysterical for its own good, but you can’t really begrudge Wan for wanting to continue the escalation. And, even if the climax doesn’t entirely work (or really make much sense), it serves as a great bit of misdirection for the film’s surprising denouement, which plays a new riff on the old horror trope that evil is never entirely contained.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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