Directed by James Wan, Written by Leigh Whannell, 102 minutes, Rated PG-13.
By our guest blogger, Matthew Schimkowitz
James Wan and Leigh Whannell may have created a monster with the “Saw” films, but they’ve made something truly frightening with “Insidious.” Working off a framework of other haunted house romps, “Insidious” wears its influences on its sleeve, recalling elements of “Poltergeist,” “The Exorcist” and maybe even a little Haunted Mansion ride from Disney world. For all its simplicity, Wan’s film delivers the spine-tingling thrills it aims for and uses all the tricks in the book to do so.
It’s an old story: A young couple moves their family into a new house to start their life together, and almost immediately, things feel off. Books inexplicably fall off shelves, doors slam open and shut, and the things that go bump in the night come out to play. For Josh and Renai, things go from scary to threatening when their son Dalton falls into sudden coma, and his nightmarish drawings become a reality.
Like “Poltergeist” before it, “Insidious” sets up the suburban nightmare perfectly. Josh and Renai’s nuclear family falls apart, when a series of bizarre events haunt their day-to-day lives, challenging their bond and the safety of their family. Wilson and Byrne have a strong chemistry that intensifies their anguish, adding weight to the scares and threats.
Wan offers a different kind of funhouse than the one he tried with “Saw,” presenting simple, classic scares over mindless bloodletting. His framing and sound design build the intensity, earning scares in every scene. Using a little trick photography and a whole lot of smoke, Wan creates a space that is disorienting and open. Characters look small in their surroundings, as off-kilter Easter eggs fill the screen. There’s subtlety to his slower scenes that makes the often quick scares worthwhile and dreadful.
However, as the movie continues and the great Lin Shaye and her team of psychics pop-up, Wan gives in to some of his lesser “Saw”-like interests. The quick cuts and flashbacks don’t fair as well as the dim, ghoulish faces that appear in the mirror. Unfortunately, the more we see of his demons, the less scary they become, dissolving some of the tension in the film’s uneven finale.
For scares alone, “Insidious” deserves an “A.” Wan’s ghoul parade keeps the hits coming, and we’ll leave you shaking long after the movie concludes. But as he struggles to fill the last act with a satisfying conclusion, he resolves on some silly masks, Dutch angles, and annoying edits that ruined the “Saw” movies for everyone but gorehounds. “Insidious” may not be very original, but for a fun trip through a haunted house, it works exceedingly well.