Directed By: James Wan
Starring: Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, Barbara Hershey, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Andrew Astor
It’s taken three months, but we’ve finally got a 2011 horror film worth seeing; something overwhelmingly unnerving with the power to keep you up at night, Insidious. It’s got a little Nightmare on Elm Street, a part The Exorcist and a hint of Paranormal Activity, too and the results certainly honor genre expectations all while delivering an exhilarating, unique and horrifyingly unpredictable experience.
Josh and Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) are a pretty happy couple. They’ve had their issues, but are leaving them behind by moving into a beautiful new home with their three children. All is well until their eldest son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), opts to do some exploring and winds up falling off a ladder in the attic. The next morning, Dalton won’t wake up. Josh and Renai take him to the hospital, but only to find out that he’s inexplicably in a coma.
Three months pass and now, not only is Dalton still in his state, but Josh and Renai have a new problem on their hands, strange and downright terrifying bumps in the night. When Renai comes to the conclusion that their new abode is haunted, unlike in any other film of the genre, the family actually moves. However, house swapping doesn’t rid them of their ghostly guests, rather intensifies the situation.
What happens when the creators of the Saw franchise and the guys behind Paranormal Activity join forces? Insidious and it’s quite wonderful. Minus the blood and guts this filmmaking team managed to infuse the haunted house and possessed child subgenres to create an experience that’s downright terrifying and refreshingly different.
Even at the start when everything is seemingly normal, the grating score and gray color palette is just enough to suggest something evil is lurking right around the corner. Still, director James Wan seizes the opportunity to pull you in and make you earnestly invested in Josh and Renai’s situation wasting no time in doing so. We do get quite a bit of character development in the first portion of the piece, but not at the expense of a drastic amount of the film’s running time and, before you know it, you’re deeply submerged in the nightmare this family is living through.
Like in Paranormal Activity, Insidious boasts an incredible ability to make you as anxious as ever. Remember how in the former, you were on the edge of your seat as night fell, holding your breath to see what the demon would do next? It’s a very similar sensation here, but minus the visual gimmick. Each block of scary material is seamlessly interwoven into the couple’s daily life, making the tonal shift that much more terrifying.
While still successful, Insidious does hit a few bumps in the road as it crosses its midpoint and approaches the third act. It’s one thing to give an audience a good scare, but it’s another to explain that scare’s source. No, writer Leigh Whannell doesn’t make it totally believable, but thanks to the strong build-up, you’re more than willing to go along with the show.
On the other hand, the shift in main characters is a little less effective. Whereas we’ve primarily been with Renai throughout the film, in the third act, the attention shifts to Josh. While this is quite necessary in terms of moving with one of the story’s twists, it doesn’t feel natural to follow him and you’re reluctant to almost entirely leave Renai behind.
What makes this shift acceptable are the performances. Even with Wilson stepping in as the leading man in the end, this is still Byrne’s show and she takes full advantage of that opportunity. Whereas in Knowing she came across as more of an ineffectual whiny mother than a deeply concerned parent, here she not only makes you believe the turmoil she’s going through, but feel it, too. Between the typical everyday stress and her unwanted houseguests, Renai is crumbling away and it’s heartbreaking to watch.
Wilson’s efforts are noble, but he also recognizes that he’s playing second fiddle to Byrne and backs off just enough to create an ideal dynamic between the two. In terms of the turn the story takes in the end, it isn’t a total disaster in the least, rather something that just could have been stronger and this is something that needed to come from the writer rather than from Wilson.
From a technical standpoint, Wan and his crew nail just about everything. From the moment the film starts, Joseph Bishara wastes no time letting you know his original music is there and continues to do so throughout the film. Yes, it’s quite intrusive, but appropriately so. As for the visuals, they’re disturbingly striking. Cinematographers David M. Brewer and John R. Leonetti do a fantastic job making use of the houses’ eerie features even when the sun is shining allowing the film to maintain its, well, insidious tone. Meanwhile, the costume and makeup departments are responsible for imagery that’s bound to haunt you for quite some time even after leaving the theater. The sole production point that lacks a bit is the set design towards the end of the film. Whereas everything up until this point feels quite real, the third act is set in a location that resembles a tacky haunted house being choked in a fog machine. Again, not a killer, but something noticeably weak.
Overall, Wan, Whannell, Oren Peli and Jason Blum have done it again. They’ve developed something that makes use of the elements of the genre we’ve come to know and love, but spices them up with a fresh story, interesting visuals and an entirely unique experience that doesn’t end after the credits roll. This is one that certainly has the power to keep you up at night and not necessarily because it’ll make you think something’s hiding under your bed.
By Perri Nemiroff