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For most of its first half, Insidious creeps along in top form as a classical haunted house movie, seething with chilling riffs and cinematic idioms that embrace the best elements of the genre. Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell (the cocreative team that unleashed the Saw franchise onto unsuspecting moviegoers in 2004) create a genuine sense of foreboding that many audiences may experience as the kind of imagery vaguely recalled from actual nightmares. Shadowy figures are glimpsed behind curtains or are barely visible through darkened windows, with the tension building from something that is only halfway there. Or maybe that something is all the way there and we just can't make it out clearly enough through the haze of our gathering dread. There aren't any cheap thrills or phony scares; the menacing tone is measured and well earned and doesn't have to rely on things jumping out of the darkness. The terror often comes from what we don't see, or rather what we're afraid we're about to see.
It's a simple story about a young family--Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) and their three small children--settling into a new home. Again following classical form, there's a presence in the house that either doesn't want them there, or needs them to stay for the evilest possible reasons. When 8-year-old Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falls into an unexplained coma after a spooky encounter in the attic, Renai starts seeing the above-mentioned figures lurking around the house, sometimes none too subtly. Though the goings-on are unexplainable, no one acts crazy and Josh believes that his wife's bizarre encounters are real. Like any sensible people who believe they've taken up residence in a haunted house, they move. But the spookiness moves with them and the menace gets worse as months pass and Dalton remains unconscious without reasonable medical cause. Since things can't stay unexplained forever, the plot begins to intrude, especially when a geeky pair of paranormal investigators (Angus Sampson and writer Leigh Whannell) provide some slightly out-of-kilter comic relief. Fortunately their boss (Lin Shaye) is a bona fide psychic who's all business, and she determines that the ghosts, or demons, or whatever they are want Dalton, not the house or its other inhabitants. As the explanations continue, it's revealed that the little boy has the gift of astral projection and his spirit has left his body without really knowing it's gone. If he doesn't come back soon he'll be lost forever, taken by the strongest of the creepy phantoms, a blood-red fiend who provides the most terrifying moments of half-glimpsed horror. It turns out that Dalton inherited his gift from Dad, who has repressed his own childhood encounters with out-of-body flight, but must revisit the dark limbo where all the specters lurk in order to reunite his son's body and soul.
All this narrative sometimes gets in the way of the sinister unknowns that started the story, but there are still plenty of frights to maintain a consistently disturbing tone (and without a drop of blood or gore). Wan and Whannell preserve the less-is-more strategy to fine effect, honoring the legacy of a timeless horror style while ably stamping it with their own unique imprimatur. Whether or not you have a personal history of nightmares, there are plenty of willies to go around in the eerie confines of Insidious--an apt title for a movie whose ideas and images invade the mind with scary and spectral imagination. --Ted Fry
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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.
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.Read more ›