Screen Rant's Rob Frappier reviews Insidious
Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell may be best known for kicking off the long-running (and phenomenally successful) Saw franchise, but the pair's latest film is arguably their first attempt at pure horror. There's no blood, no guts, and no devious death traps. Just a spooky old house, a collection of things that go bump in the dark, and a hell of a lot of jump scares.
And did I mention that Insidious is the scariest movie I've seen in years?
For the most part, Insidious sticks closely to the haunted house genre of horror (a sort of revival of classics like Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror). A married couple, Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne), move into a beautiful old house with their two young sons and a new baby. The early scenes in the film establish the characters very clearly. Renai is the put-upon mother and Josh is the loving, but somewhat aloof husband.
As the family adjusts to their new home, Renai begins noticing unusual events in the house (classic horror movie stuff like the books being moved from one place to another). Their oldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) also seems aware of something faintly sinister lurking in the shadows. While exploring the attic, Dalton is spooked off of a ladder and bumps his head.
The next morning, Dalton simply doesn't wake up. Josh and Renai turn to doctors who run Dalton through a variety of tests, but nobody can explain the boy's coma. (Duh! Because it's not a medical coma. Don't doctors watch scary movies?)
Over the next few months, Renai does her best to care for her son, all while dealing with increasingly spooky stuff happening in her home. Using tried and true techniques (the slow build jump scare accompanied by raucous strings), Wan delivers some of the most effective scares in the film during this stretch of the plot. I'm not ashamed to admit that I spent a good portion of this sequence digging my nails into my arm rests and crouching low in my seat.
Eventually, Renai convinces her husband to leave the house. In a smart bit of writing, Josh agrees with his wife and they move. (I hate how in haunted house movies, there's always someone who wants to stay. Why? I'd be gone in a second if my wife wanted to leave.) Of course, anyone who has seen the trailer for Insidious knows that moving doesn't help the situation because it's not the house that's haunted... IT'S DALTON HIMSELF!
What's a family to do? Why, bring in a psychic medium of course. Lin Shaye plays the medium and writer Leigh Whannell plays one half of her two man team paranormal investigation team. While each of these characters was somewhat familiar, I enjoyed all of the performances and was impressed by the fresh writing. The film's obligatory seance scene, which could have been rehashed from past horror films, is given a unique twist and makes for one of the movie's most effective moments.
I won't talk much more about the story. Suffice it to say, the rest of the film revolves around Renai and Josh's efforts to save their son from slipping away from them forever. Astral projection, demonic possession, and other issues are brought up, but always intelligently and with a certain realism that allows the film to be that much scarier.
With the exception of a somewhat offbeat third act, which is very clearly Wan and Whannell's personal touch and something that I actually enjoyed, the movie hits mostly familiar beats. I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing though. I think of it as a master chef preparing a basic recipe. Just because something is simple, that doesn't mean it can't be amazing in the right hands. While the movie doesn't break much new ground in the haunted house genre, Wan and Whannell handle the formula like pros.
I've criticized the overuse of jump scares in horror movies, but I don't think that's an issue here. Almost every scare is set-up and executed well and the additional elements of the film (score, cinematography, etc.) work together seamlessly. Technically speaking, what Wan was able to do with this movie on a relatively limited budget is incredible. (Insidious producer and Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli probably deserves credit here too.)
In our interview with James Wan and Leigh Whannell, Wan talked about working on a tight budget and how it forced him to be creative during filming. It really shows throughout the movie. Where other films might have relied on special effects, Wan (who also edited the movie) uses unique camera angles and ominous shadows to inspire dread. Likewise, Wan does a great job getting believable performances from his cast. Despite the potential for the movie to devolve into silliness, the actors keep the plot grounded. Credit also goes to Whannell for writing relatable characters.
Bottom line: Insidious is the movie that horror fans deserve. Even with its oft-maligned PG-13 rating, Insidious serves up more frightening imagery and pulse-pounding scares than any other recent horror movie, with the possible exception of Paranormal Activity. The movie simply works. I sincerely hope that people flock to see Insidious this weekend and scare themselves silly.
I love blood and gore in movies as much as the next horror fan, but I'm very tired of the so-called "torture porn" genre (which, somewhat ironically was kicked off by Saw). I hope that Insidious convinces audiences that a real horror movie doesn't need to be gruesome and that, sometimes, there's more to be scared of in the shadows of your own house than in some fictional faraway torture chamber.