One of my favorite films out of this year’s Midnight Madness line-up (at the Toronto International Film Festival) was James Wan and Leigh Whannel’s (the duo behind Saw) latest collaboration, Insidious. While I thought the film was perfect fun (read my review), I didn’t think it was a perfect film. Mike Pereira is on a similar note, but gives an extra thumbs up for creativity and entertainment value. Read Mike’s review inside, while the rest of you will have to wait until 2011 to see it when Sony releases it in theaters.
In 2004, a little film titled Saw burst onto the scene and single-handedly gave birth to the “torture porn” era. This subgenre will more than likely be what defines this decade in horror. The popular (and seemingly never-ending) franchise is the brainchild of director, James Wan and writer, Leigh Whannell. After following up with two studio pictures, Dead Silence and Death Sentence, the duo return to their indie roots with Insidious. Here, their focus is on scaring the audience, as opposed to grossing them out.
Wan and Whannell have shown an affinity for high stylization in all aspects of the filmmaking department. Subtlety is not one of their biggest traits and I mean that as a complement. Melodrama, horror and comedy are audaciously married together. The juxtapositioning of these different emotions have given their films a moment or two of awkwardness. Whether it was caused by restraint either stemming from pressures from producers or the studio system, it’s seems clear with Insidious that Wan and Whannell have been left to their own devices. They’ve unleashed their wildly unhinged vision without compromise. The film and the viewer’s experience is all the better for it.
Insidious introduces us to Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) who’ve just moved into a Victorian home with their three children. Soon after, they become terrorized by supernatural entities. Things intensify when their boy, Dalton (Ty Simpkins) abruptly goes into a coma. Following the advice of Renai’s mother, Lorraine (The Entity‘s Barbara Hershey), they call in the assistance of paranormal investigators (hilariously played by Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson), lead by the eccentric Elise Reiner (the always great, Lin Shaye). If this all sounds reminiscent of Poltergeist, it’s not by accident. Insidious is a return to the days when horror films were actually scary and didn’t need to be drenched in gore to engage an audience. Aside from a few like, the Rec films, Inside and Paranormal Activity (its creator, Oren Peli is actually one of this film’s producers), there hasn’t been a whole lot of present day horror that can claim to be genuinely spooky. You can add Insidious to that small list.
The first half of the film plays out sinisterly not unlike a Roman Polanski picture. Wan (who’s also the editor) masterfully builds a sense of dread with one beautifully composed moment after another. Shot on the ever popular RED camera, the filmmakers have managed to find a way to create a vintage horror look within the digital format. At the same time, using HD’s high level of detail as a way to draw the viewer all the more closer to this increasingly hostile environment. Insidious earns every single one of its scares without ever resorting to phony, cheap techniques like blasting out the soundtrack to eleven whenever a person pops into frame to give you back your change. Wan’s tension-filled set-pieces are textbook examples of how it’s done. The high level of craftsmanship Wan displays here continues the type of cinema language that masters like Brian De Palma and Dario Argento have built their careers off of. This is high praise but I can confidently state that Insidious hits that level of artistry throughout. One only has to look at how effectively Wan pulls off the audacious daytime scares to see what we’re dealing with. This is American horror at its finest.
Applause must be given to the cast for being the perfect counterbalance to Wan’s highly stylized filmmaking. They wisely downplay it, never trying to compete with the film’s increasingly eccentric tone. Otherwise, it could’ve been a little too overbearing and be reduced to self-parody. This is especially true when it comes to Insidious‘ off-the-wall third act. Wan and Whannell take the viewer into some of the most surreal places ever to be featured in a genre picture. This will undoubtedly be the make it or break point for most people. I expect it to be argued for years to come. This ballsy section of Insidious is what took it over the edge for me. I ate up every moment of it. Plus, you get all this crazy stuff with a refreshing lack of obvious CGI to ruin it.
As with all their work, Wan and Whannell have given us the rare horror film that truly takes risks, all for the sake of presenting something fresh and exciting. It’s an undeniable work of a distinct voice and not a committee. Insidious is an imaginative and exhilarating twist on the haunted house subgenre. It’s the most entertaining horror film of its kind since The Frighteners, only even better. Insidious made me laugh out loud, just as often as it scared the crap out of me. I really couldn’t ask for anything more. Insidious is an instant genre classic that should easily wipe away the “Saw guys” label off of James Wan and Leigh Whannell.
P.S. I’ve pondered for days on whether I should give Insidious a 4