Several years after breaking through with their indie Saw, creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell have come full circle with Insidious, their first low budget fare since they changed the genre’s direction all those years ago. After witnessing the duos tough battle through studio system, it was exciting and refreshing to watch them attempt another personal project. While budgetary issues are glaring (such as being forced to go digital with the ever-so-sucky Red camera), Wan and Whannell craft yet another memorable (and unique) ghost story that could easily be called the no-budget Dead Silence, featuring what Whannell tagged their “trademark Saw spin.”
Opening with a massive title card, and an intense sting from composer (and star?!) Joseph Bishara, Insidious embarks on a swift journey into the lives of Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) who are moving into their new Victorian house. With two young boys and a new child in the crib, this massive house appears to be the perfect start to their new lives. Josh has given his wife time off from her job so she can work on her musical career (something that never works into the story nor pays off) and raise the youngins.
With Josh working late (grading those papers, you know, late night work stuff), their kid Dalton (Ty Simpkins) is absolutely terrified of something. The audience knows he sees something, but Dalton refuses to tell his parents. Without any warning, Dalton goes into a coma that no doctor can explain. Within a few months, Josh’s wife Renai begins to see ghosts around the house and is convinced it’s haunted. Scariness ensues. When Dalton appears to be under attack, the duo quickly move to a new house and put the horrible experience in the back of their minds.
Up until this point, the movie is pretty damn intense and carries an array of quality authentic scares. At this point, Wan and Whannell make a left turn and throw the audience a curve ball… we’ll get back to that.
Josh’s mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), recommends a psychic/medium whom she has had a previous working relationship with. The second act introduces a pair of paranormal investigators (one played by a tongue-in-cheek, fun Leigh Whannell), who quickly deem the new house haunted. As a direct homage to Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) from Poltergeist, we meet medium Elise Reiner (Lin Shaye), a fun and kooky older woman who carries some quite unordinary techniques.
Now this is the important part of the review, and the point where audiences are going to be split. Up until the mid-second act, Wan and Whannell treat the audience as competent horror fans who have grown up on films such as Spielberg’s Poltergeist and the forever-terrifying The Exorcist. After investigating the house, Reiner sits Josh and Renai down to explain what’s going on with Dalton; he’s not in a coma, but trapped in The Further, an out of body netherworld that’s riddled with haunts looking for a way out. It’s not just the concept that will throw audiences, but the audacity of the over-explanation that pulls the brakes the film. Instead of kicking it into high gear, the duo feel compelled to talk the audience through moment by moment. For Wan, a director I consider to be one of the most visual in our genre, to inject such a heavy amount of exposition into his film is slightly unordinary. In fact, the delivery becomes so heavy that it’s soaked in melodrama until the last frame.
But let’s take a step back to where I stated that Insidious will divide the audiences. When Lin Shaye enters the scene, it’s literally a sequence that asks the audience to take a major leap of faith. If you’re with it, you’ll have a great time, if you’re not, it becomes a really cheesy movie. I don’t want to say it’s being “forgiving” of the third act; it’s more so deciding to jump aboard and enjoy the ride.
Those of you willing to step onto the invisible threshold will be rewarded; everyone else might as well walk right out of the theater. After Reiner explains The Further, The Astral, and the “insidious” beings, Wan gets intensely creative adding an overdose of bells and whistles to an otherwise simple possessions tale.
In a very Wan-esque moment (visual and memorable), Reiner straps on a gas mask that’s connected to a pair of earphones around Whannell’s head. She whispers to Dalton (trapped in the Further) while Whannell’s character writes down his responses. The situation intensifies sending Insidious into a flurry of memorable visual sequences that range from a devil-esque character with his face “painted like fire” to paranormal investigators using a modified View-Master to see ghosts.
Insidious, with all of its flaws, is a daring film. It risks daytime scares, most of which are goddamn terrifying, and takes a BOLD move by making all of the ghosts visually “solid” beings, as apposed to being transparent. Wan is obviously an artist before a director, which is the main reason all of his flicks are memorable.
Again, Insidious is going to split audiences straight down the middle. Visually a bit too clean (oh Red camera, how I loathe you), slightly unfocused, and extremely over dramatic, those are just a few of the hurdles you’ll be forced to climb in order to relish in the entertainment value of this chiller. And even through all of the flaws, Insidious is jam-packed with genuine scares and enough visual set pieces that it won’t soon be forgotten. I predict a 2011 horror hit from the creators of Saw. Welcome back.
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