Sony // 2010 // 102 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // July 8th, 2011
It's Not The House That's Haunted.
The team of James Wan and Leigh Whannell are most famous for giving birth to the Saw franchise. Following the disappointment of Dead Silence, and the diminishing returns of the Saw sequels (which the two served as producers on), the duo have returned to the horror genre with Insidious, and what appears to be their love letter to Tobe Hooper's '80s classic Poltergeist.
Insidious opens shortly after the Lambert family have moved into their new home; their happiness is short lived, however, when spooky goings on force them to flee the house. Setting up house again for the second time in a few months, the family soon realizes it's not the house that was haunted, but their eldest son, Dalton, the target of a malevolent demon intent on possessing the child.
The intent to make Insidious a serious horror film is evident from the start. There's no grisly "opening kill," no mythos-establishing introduction, or publicity grabbing cameo. In fact, were it not for the marketing and DVD cover being explicit about this being a horror, the film could easily be mistaken for a family drama, at least initially. Through several early scenes Insidious takes the time introducing us to the Lambert family: Renai and Josh, their two young boys Dalton and Foster, and their baby daughter. Having just relocated, the family is getting used to their new house, and not unexpectedly having a few problems adjusting. But while this otherwise normal family drama is unfolding, the film begins to establish something else going on, something rather unexplained. It begins innocently enough, with boxes going missing and Dalton saying he doesn't like his bedroom, but the mood gradually intensifies. Suddenly books are found scattered around the floor, odd bumping noises emanate from the attic, and then one night Dalton goes to sleep and doesn't wake up again.
So far, so good. And things only get better as the second act deals with the toll Dalton's coma-like state has on Josh and Renai's relationship (with each other and their other children), while simultaneously immersing itself in the supernatural. The family itself begins to breakdown: Josh becomes distant, working late at work as he looks for an escape from the problems at home, seemingly unable to understand the outlandish claims his wife is making of ghostly apparitions appearing in the kids' bedroom. But it's Renai who truly suffers. Without her husband, who has yet to witness these supernatural forces at play, she finds herself alone in protecting the kids, finding solace in her mother-in-law who seems to be the only person willing to believe her.
It's the second act where Insidious comes closest to becoming something truly special. Whannell's screenplay is in no rush to divulge too much too soon, slowly feeding us information that offers suggestions of what is really going on, whilst providing some genuinely frightening sequences. Coupled with Wan's excellent direction, these sequences become almost masterful examples of horror. In one scene, Renai -- who clearly wonders whether she really is going insane -- witnesses a child dancing in her living room whilst she takes the garbage out; returning to the house she finds nothing, only to be confronted moments later by a giggling phantom that she pursues through the hallways. Despite nothing overtly frightening about the appearance of said apparition, the entire sequence is superbly done, and will send shivers down the spine of viewers as we catch glimpses of ghostly goings on in the background. Likewise, those who were freaked by the face behind the diner in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive will likely fill their trousers when Insidious pulls a similar trick out of nowhere. Just as Whannell's writing is (up to this point) measured, Wan's direction is subtle, offering only glimpses of the unsettling events. He's particularly careful not to show too much of the demon stalking Dalton, making excellent use of shadows to conceal his bogeyman, while showing amazing composure and assuredness as he steadily builds the atmosphere.
Helping to sell the film are Barbara Hershey (Black Swan), Patrick Wilson (Watchmen), and Rose Byrne (X-Men: First Class). Hershey especially helps ground the film in reality, despite the fantastical goings on, as the sympathetic mother-in-law who one suspects may know more than she's letting on. Much of the film's power comes from the way it manipulates the viewer by playing on a parents fear for the safety of their children, something that Hershey's character exudes magnificently. Whannell turns up himself, alongside Lin Shaye (Kingpin) and Angus Sampson, as a member of a team of paranormal investigators. Though Whannell and Sampson do bring some humor to proceedings, they aren't as destabilizing as is initially suggested.
It's a shame that all this hard work, all the tension, even the good performances are undone by a silly finale. Remember Poltergeist? Remember how JoBeth Williams ventures through the portal inside the wardrobe and into the unearthly realm to bring back her daughter? Remember how powerful that scene was with nothing more than (admittedly brilliant) reaction shots and sound design? We didn't need to see what was on the other side; Hooper (or Steven Spielberg, depending on who you believe actually directed the movie) gave our fevered minds more than enough to imagine what horrors awaited beyond. Sadly Wan and Whannell cannot resist taking us into "The Further," and in doing so risk derailing their movie completely. In fact, the way Insidious falls apart so rapidly is similar to Joe Dante's otherwise rather good The Hole. The problem is one of restraint, or rather the lack of it. If you're going to show the viewer what lies beyond, it had better be something pretty spectacularly terrifying, or you stand to lose your audience in a heartbeat. Sadly, Whannell/Wan's version of the world beyond our own is rather uninspired, one that's likely to illicit sniggers more than anything else. Not to spoil anything, but the lair of the demon pursuing young Dalton echoes those of The Creeper (Jeepers Creepers) and Darkness (Legend) to minimal effect. This misstep proves terminal, as all momentum is lost and the film stumbles towards an awkwardly obvious climax that is more likely to anger audiences than terrify them.
I like a lot of the work Wan and Whannell have done together. Saw is a great movie, one that helped shaped the landscape of modern horror (for better or worse), and even Dead Silence had its moments, but how they let Insidious slip from their grasp is almost unforgivable, if only for how good it was and how great it could have been.
Insidious is presented in a 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer. Deep black levels, allied to sharp image with excellent detail (regardless of lighting) makes for an impressive looking disc. The 5.1 soundtrack makes good use of the rear speakers, with individual sounds crystal clear. Complementing the main feature are three featurettes, each focusing on the making of the film.
Despite a severe stumble during the final act, I urge fans of horror (real horror, not gore soaked torture porn) to check out Insidious. Yes, comparisons to Poltergeist do it no favors, and the claim that the film is an unofficial remake of the Hooper/Spielberg classic do stand up to scrutiny, but it's still a fun, occasionally scary thrill ride.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13