On the surface, the Lambert family has it all. Father, Josh (Patrick Wilson), is a successful teacher; mother, Renai (Rose Byrne), is a songwriter. They have three children and have just moved into a large old house. Things are going great, except for a few little problems. Dalton (Ty Simpkins) is exploring the attic when he falls, bumps his head, and slips into a coma the following day, despite not having any serious injuries. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Renai keeps seeing demons and ghosts in their house. And I thought termites were the worst thing you could find in a house you just bought!
There’s a family move to a new house, but as it turns out, the Lamberts’ problems don’t stay at the old residence. There’s a little issue with their son, Dalton. He’s not in a coma, he’s a body without a spirit, thanks to a little problem Dalton has with astral projection. Fortunately, grandma, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), has had some experience with this sort of thing and she knows just who to call. Will the Lamberts save their son from the lipstick-faced demon (Joseph Bishara)?
Admittedly, I had low expectations of Insidious when I went into the theater, but on a Saturday night in front of a full theater, it was quite a fun experience. With an audience that’s actually into the film, laughing and screaming and whatnot, these kinds of scary movies can be a lot of fun, and when it’s a film that tries hard to be entertaining and creepy without any elements of torture porn or without being an R-rated film cut down to PG-13, there’s fun to be had.
It’s obvious that James Wan and Leigh Whannell have been watching a lot of 70s haunted house movies in the preparation to make Insidious, because they crib pretty much every positive aspect they can from those films. The tension built up in the opening forty-five minutes is very thick, and the scares are varied. Even though a lot of them are expected, there are still a lot of unexpected moments and a whole lot of dread-filled camera movements through empty rooms that really ratcheted up the tension. The film’s scare plan is also well-done, with some very subtle flashes paired with overt ‘we’re trying to scare you!’ moments throughout the film’s opening half.
Even after the supernatural elements are officially introduced and we see the black-skinned fire-faced man with holes for eyes, Insidious continues to crib some of the more interesting aspects of the 70s for its set pieces. The astral plane version of the Lambert household is concealed by endless fog, and the inside of the house looks like some kind of Coffin Joe fever dream filtered through the high camp lens of Dr. Phibes. The associate fiends that make up the bulk of the denizens of the Further were also very well done, with special notice going to the long-haired fiend (J. LaRose) that provides the bulk of the movie’s early scares.
As for Whannell’s script, it’s perfectly serviceable and well balanced between both the haunted house and the supernatural horror elements. It’s also much better than his Saw efforts, which is a sign that he’s improving as a writer and crafter of characters. The decision for the Lamberts to move houses rather than simply stay at the haunted original house the entire time is kind of refreshing, especially in this genre. The use of astral projection as a means to opening up the self to the supernatural is an interesting wrinkle you don’t see much. I figure most people forgot about astral projection after it went out of fashion in the 70s, but it fits in really well with the movie’s retro vibe.
The movie’s middle section has some tension-relieving comic relief, including a particularly memorable sequence involving two bumbling ghost hunters (played by Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson), but once Elise (Lin Shaye) shows up and starts communing with the spirits and taking on this film’s Zelda Rubinstein role, the comic relief goes away and the serious supernatural events start.
Still, the second half of the film isn’t as good as the first, though I liked some of the touches involved in the less reality-based half of the film. It’s not that the trip to the Further is bad, it’s just not as good as the haunted house portions of the movie.
Ms. Shaye is one of the better performers in a movie that’s actually full of surprising people. I mean Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne are pretty big names, especially considering Wilson’s recent work, and Barbara Hershey is always welcome (this time, she’s Patrick Wilson’s mother, and she’s got a secret). Even Whannell and his troublesome American accent aren’t a bother, given that he’s kept it to a minimum and paired with the equally amusing Sampson.
It feels strange to say it, but I quite enjoyed Insidious. As a haunted house movie, it was a pretty good one. As a supernatural horror, it was less successful, but still quite a bit of fun.
Wan and Whannell were very important in launching the torture porn genre. It remains to be seen if they can give the same boost to the haunted house genre.
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