Insidious comes with an odious tag-line: “From the makers of Saw and Paranormal Activity.” But don’t switch-off just yet, as the fourth feature from James Wan (the original and best Saw) can be considered a quantum leap in his abilities. There are moments that disturb and send a chill down the spine – a sensation I haven’t felt watching a horror film since Candyman all those years ago. Insidious is like a Swiss watch; aesthetically pleasing and tighter than a drum, but somewhere along the way Wan drops the watch and smashes it to pieces. Insidious goes from genuinely terrifying to ridiculous in a single beat.
It certainly follows a conventional horror movie schematic: We are introduced to a couple, Renai and Josh Lambert (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson), who move into a new house with their three children. One day, their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) hears noises in the attic and goes to investigate. While trying to reach a light switch from a ladder, he falls and seriously bangs his head. Despite this injury, his parents put him to bed. The next day, Josh goes to wake Dalton, but he doesn’t get up. They rush him to the hospital, and in true movie form, the doctor informs them that they have no idea what’s wrong with their son – he’s in an inexplicable coma. Three months pass and, while he sleeps, strange things continue to happen in the house.
As the trailer grandly proclaims…”it isn’t your house that’s haunted, it’s your son!”
Insidious brings a new vitality to the rote “jump scare” tactic, and you’ll be amazed at how many Wan pulls off successfully. He really is becoming a fine filmmaker, and the set-up of Insidious is glorious. Tension and paranoia slowly builds as sinister events occur: Items move around by themselves, otherworldly noises emanate from upstairs, and twisted visions of evil spirits startle the characters (and the audience). It’s old, well-worn territory, but Wan wrings every last drop of suspense out of the early scenes, with roving camerawork that glides effortlessly around the house, and a terrific sense of mood. This is a well-constructed picture…at least for a while.
Before it goes off the rails, Wan is helped immensely by the cast. Wilson isn’t a typical Hollywood lead, but his everyman quality is a good match for Josh, getting the audience on his side. He’s also adept at showing darkness in his characters (most notably in Hard Candy), and that skill is put to excellent use here…but not in the way you’re probably expecting. Byrne outperforms him every step of the way, however; her fragile beauty and vulnerability is perfectly exploited by Wan. We buy the character’s fear, and Insidious largely works due to her layered portrayal.
The supporting cast isn’t so solid, and it actually signals a change in direction for the film. Bemused at the escalating levels of weirdness, Renai and Josh seek the help of paranormal expert Elise (Lin Shaye). Completely over-acting, and seemingly aware of her character’s debt to a similar role in Poltergeist, Shaye has a field day. With her, are two bumbling assistants (Angus Sampson and the screenwriter Leigh Whannell) who don’t belong in this movie. Their constant bickering, though humorous, feels like out-takes from a lost Cheech & Chong horror parody. Barbara Hershey (Black Swan) also struggles as Josh’s worried mother, given the thankless task of feeding exposition.
Oh yes, the exposition. Dalton isn’t asleep, you see. He is simply lost in “The Further” – the afterlife. On one hand, the way Insidious changes gear from haunted house/possession film to guff about astral-projection should be congratulated. Yet the Twilight Zone-esque motif largely destroys the films understated dread. Soon enough, the characters are engaging in a séance, and this is where Insidious takes a turn for the truly ludicrous: Shaye decks herself out in a gas mask (for reasons that are never made clear) and summons the spirits, which practically tear the place apart and send people flying across the room in pleasingly choreographed ways. Right then and there, the tension snaps like a twig. We’re heading into pure schlock.
The eventual journey into “The Further” only diminishes the films power, and Wan suddenly loses his command over the proceedings. Let’s just say that the chief antagonist is a demon with cloven feet, and leave it at that. While the flaws late in the film are significant, they don’t completely deprive Insidious of value. If you like a film with atmosphere, this is the movie for you.
At the end, all we’re left with is a baffling mix of old school archetypes, jump scares and more questions than answers. You’ll scratch your head, wonder what it all means, and mourn what is a missed opportunity. Wan exceeds his grasp, and while he has proven himself as a master craftsman, he really needs to reign-in some of his more outlandish ideas. There’s a really good film within Insidious, and it was so close to hitting the mark. When it works, it works like no other horror film in the last 10 years. It’s just a shame about that final 40-minutes.