on November 21, 2011
Surprisingly 'old-school' ghost story given that the writer and director are best known for their work on the hardcore Saw films. If it weren't for the last twenty minutes and the subsequent, exhausted 'twist' ending, this would be a really solid film.
Young Dalton Lambert goes into a medically inexplicable coma. His family searches for answers. Weird things happen. A psychic is consulted. More weird things happen. That's the movie with the major twists and revelations unrevealed.
Wan and Whannel get a lot of productive mileage out of showing little and suggesting a lot, of quick scares and odd things lurking in the outskirts of the frame. The cosmology introduced by the psychic to explain what's going on makes a certain amount of sense, though it's not developed enough to be all that convincing for long. A visual homage to Neil Gaiman's Sandman series is a bit jarring; that one supernatural entity looks an awful lot like Darth Maul undercuts a certain amount of tension.
Rose Byrne is a stand-out as the worried mother. Byrne's face in repose tends to look sad anyway -- I think it's her eyebrows -- and the look suits the material. Patrick Wilson is fine as the father, who has supernatural secrets of his own, though he appears to lose about 50 IQ points in the last twenty minutes. When the psychic tells you not to draw attention to yourself, don't run around yelling at every supernatural entity you encounter, that's all I've got to say.
The movie also joins the horror sub-sub-sub-genre of 'Monsters who love novelty songs,' as one entity really likes Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," which was already terrifying enough on its own. Hell's playlist must be really awful.
A family moves into a new home, and spooky things start happening. Eventually they realize the truth -- they are being haunted by a malevolent supernatural force.
It's a plot so common that it has become a cliche, but there is still some creative juice to be squeezed from it -- and in "Insidious," it scares the pants off you. James Wan (the guy who gave us the original "Saw" and "Dead Silence") crafts a slow, eerie drift through a ghostly nightmare, which is only flawed because sometimes it feels like he's throwing every single scary thing imaginable into it.
Renai and Josh Lambert (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson) have just moved into a lovely new house with their three children, and everything seems fine.... until their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falls into a coma, and the doctors don't know why. Then weird things start happening -- Dalton's brother reveals that Dalton sleepwalks through the house every night, faces appear in the windows, and a mysterious specter attacks Renai.
So they do the sensible thing: move to a new house. But then Josh's mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) spots a horrifying figure lurking near Dalton's body, and they realize that whatever was haunting them before has followed them.
So Lorraine calls in an old psychic friend, Elise (Lin Shaye); Josh believes that she's just a fraud, but she soon shows that she can detect the Darth Maul-looking creature that is haunting Dalton. It turns out that Dalton's soul is lost in a spiritual in-between zone that Elise calls The Further -- and if they don't save him soon, something terrible will steal his body.
In a lot of ways, "Insidious" reminds me of "Poltergeist" -- a family, a new home, a terrifying ghostly presence that is stalking a gifted child, and a parent who is forced to go into an "in between" death dimension. And like "Poltergeist," this movie takes well-worn ghost story cliches and makes them scary once more... just by doing them really well.
Even before the spooky stuff begins, director James Wan gives the movie an eerie atmosphere. Every scene is full of pale grey light, with lots of empty shadowy rooms and sudden bursts of loud wild sound (including "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," which is terrifying enough). And he gives you the feeling that something is lurking in the corner just out of sight -- something cold and hungry, something utterly merciless. Even worse, it's not alone.
Gradually, Wan builds up a sense of building horror, throwing in glimpses of dead-faced men, gas masks, and finally a venture into the Further itself. This is basically everything that James Wan finds terrifying -- a hellish, eerie dimension filled with the grinning puppet-like dead, victrolas piping eerie music, and a demon who looks like a Darth Maul minotaur. It doesn't sound scary, but it will have you clawing the arms of your chair.
The only problem with the Further is... well, it feels like Wan flung every single scary thing he could come up with into the Further, without much of a plan. It's wildly effective on a visceral level, but it leaves you wondering how some parts of it (the laughing kid, for instance) gel together with Darth Maul Demon.
Sympathetic characters in horror movies are about as common as frogs who can do algebra, so it's refreshing that... well, pretty much everybody in this movie is likable. While Josh seems insensitive at times, it's gradually revealed that there's a reason why he shies away from all things supernatural, and Patrick Wilson really gives a powerful, intense performance as a guy desperate to save his son, yet resistant to what could save him.
Byrne is at the other end of the spectrum -- Renai is crumbling slowly under the constant onslaught of specters and scares, and Byrne captures her raw terror for her family. Shaye and Hershey give solid performances as well... and my only complaint is that the baby is ALWAYS crying.
With excellent direction and a very talented cast, "Insidious" is a haunting ghost story that builds up to visceral, nightmarish terror -- and while the horror seems random sometimes, it's still very effective.