Many people consider the horror genre the lowliest form of cinema. Their inherent focus on death can be off-putting and as time has gone on, they have gotten more and more grotesque. To not enjoy the genre is, at this point, understandable. That’s why, as a critic, I’m supposed to scoff at torture porn movies like Hostel and The Human Centipede. And I do. But one film I believe is unfairly lumped in with those films is Saw. The sequels are another matter (although some, like number six, at least manage to provide interesting commentary), but the first film was original and thought provoking and, contrary to popular belief, didn’t concentrate on a large cast of no names getting mangled by overcomplicated contraptions. It was a tight psychological thriller with two skillfully developed main characters who became more nuanced as it went on (though it was by no means perfect). The duo behind that movie, Leigh Whannell and James Wan, have been on my radar ever since that film. They are a force to be reckoned with in the horror community, especially after their severely underrated 2007 film, Dead Silence. Their newest, Insidious, isn’t quite as good as those two films, but given the state of horror these days, it’s still worth a look.
Husband and wife Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) have just moved into a new house. They haven’t quite finished unpacking yet and their days are hectic. Josh works hard during the day while Renai tries to balance out the care of her three children with composing piano music. Suddenly, however, their oldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) sadly and unexplainably falls into a coma. Three months pass and he still isn’t awake, but Renai is beginning to hear and see things in the house and she thinks his coma might have been brought on by something not of this realm.
Insidious is your typical haunted house story. Things go bump in the night, faint apparitions appear behind thinly veiled bed canopies and doors creak open and close. Those are only a few of the sub-genre’s tried and true tricks the film borrows. It’s most certainly not original, but it excels in a few key areas and manages to frighten on more than one occasion, particularly in the first act.
The opening scenes perfectly set the tone for the film and James Wan’s visual style is eerie without being overbearing, employing black and white footage in the opening credits montage and canted camera angles to show that something is not right in the house. He has a visual eye for the macabre. Even when things seem normal, you get a sense something unseen is close by. It’s an effect that is not easy to pull off, but Wan does it here.
These early moments promise a slow building ghost movie, similar to something like 1980’s effective chiller, The Changeling, and this is when it works best. Ghosts are left hidden or at quick glimpses and its use of shadows keeps you on the edge of year seat, aware that something could be hidden beneath the shroud of darkness. It’s about what you don’t see, which makes it all the more frightening. Unfortunately, this tight, focused ghost movie becomes more and more ridiculous, and even occasionally laughable, as it goes on. The unsettling feeling present in the early scenes all but vanishes, leaving you only with predictable jump scares as it spirals down the same problematic pathway many horror movies do. As the ghosts become more prominent and the filmmakers put them front and center, it becomes decidedly less scary, stripping away whatever terrifying design your imagination has conjured up and replacing it with something that, frankly, looks kind of stupid.
Insidious, despite its many problems, is anchored by two terrific performances from two accomplished actors and it manages to redeem itself in the last ten minutes or so in a climax that mixes the dreamlike visuals of A Nightmare on Elm Street with the exploration of a survival horror video game like Silent Hill. In the end, Insidious squanders its opportunity to become a truly scary movie, but a few inspired moments and effective frights make it a fun diversion nonetheless.
Insidious receives 3/5