It is a rare horror film that can take the cliches and well-worn archetypes of the genre, embrace them, and produce something shocking and original. Leave it to the two filmmakers responsible for Saw and Dead Silence (the best living puppet/doll film you never saw) to find a way to innovate the bloated field of haunted house films. Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannel turn all the stock characters of this sub-genre (and even many of the same jump scares and storytelling devices) into a modern nightmare of weird fiction. Renai and Josh Lambert (Rose Burn and Patrick Wilson) move their three kids into a big new house. Their oldest son, the adventurous Dalton (Ty Simpkins), falls off a ladder in the attic and bumps his head. Renai and Josh put him to bed thinking nothing is wrong. The next morning, no one can wake Dalton up. The doctors don't believe he's in a coma (perfectly normal brain wave function, breathing fine, good test results), but his body isn't responding to any stimuli. Three months later, the family begins to experience very strange occurrences in their new dream home. Boxes are moved, strange voices are picked up on the baby monitor, and someone is having a whole lot of fun slamming doors and crawling through windows.
To go further into the plot would be to spoil what Whannell and Wan do with the material. Yes, that plot description sounds a lot like other films. Reading it back, I see a little of The Exorcist, a smidgen of Poltergeist, a healthy dash of The Amytiville Horror, and even a sprinkling of Rose Red. Do not let the straightforward plot fool you. Insidious is a film filled with surprises not because of the story it tells, but how Whannell and Wan tell the story.
Take, for instance, how long it takes for something strange to happen in the film. Renai can't sleep, so she goes downstairs and unpacks a handful of hard-cover books, the top book being on Metaphysics. She places them on the book shelf. Her son Dalton can't sleep either, claiming he doesn't like his room. They look through a photo album and talk about family history until the baby of the family wakes up screaming. The film cuts to breakfast at a house where nothing is unpacked. Everyone is cramped on the floor, table, and chairs trying to have breakfast before school. Renai is calling the telephone company while Josh is trying to find a piece of fresh fruit. Eventually, Renai walks into the other room and finds her books fanned out on the floor, the Metaphysics text on the bottom, not the top. She chastises Dalton for playing with her books and goes on with her day.
For something so mundane in a horror film, it sure is a vivid scene to remember. This production team did not assume that concept alone earned them the right to outright scare the audience. They earn your trust by grounding the film in real world problems. They slowly inch away from stark reality, occasionally throwing a loud crash or Exorcist-styled figure in the shadows to set you on edge. By the time Insidious is in full-tilt horror mode, the film has earned the right to throw screaming cats and buckets of blood at the screen; it doesn't. That's the shocking part.
This is not a particularly violent film. Many of the scares come from uncomfortable circumstances and careful editing. Almost all of them rely heavily on a beautifully rendered sound mix. Zsolt Magyar does an excellent job balancing Josh Bishari's demented score (screaming violins over pulsing violas and a whole lot of static) with the sounds of bursting light bulbs, slamming doors, whispers, screams, and heavy breathing. The mix is so precise that I genuinely thought a cell phone was going off behind me when a phone on screen was positioned behind the camera.
The performances in this film are all good. Patrick Wilson has the disadvantage of not having any written character development (his arc is skeptic to believer with no significant plot detail to cause the shift) and still brings out a full-bodied person. Rose Byrne sells the overwhelming sense of dread the audience is feeling to the point that you might wonder if the film will pursue "Renai's suffering from post-partum depression" angle. Barbara Hershey is strong as Josh's mother with a dark secret. Even Leigh Whannell does good work as the artistic half of a ghost-hunting team.
The breakout star of the film has to be Lin Shayne as medium Elise Rainier. Many great character actresses have gotten to play similar roles, most notably the late Zelda Rubinstein in Poltergeist. However, no one has had to go through such an intense array of startling emotions and bizarre scenarios as Shayne does in this film. From the hate-filled description of the demon in the house to the unerring tour guide of the spirit realm, Shayne does not miss a beat. She's funny, she's scary, she's deadly serious, and she's never out of character for even an instant. There are moments where other actors, most noticeably Patrick Wilson, aren't quite sure what to do with the screenplay; Shayne never shows any doubt. It's a masterful performance in a tricky role designed to bridge the gap between reality and the true nature of Insidious.
Anyone who is a fan of horror would be foolish not to go see Insidious in theaters. There are so many new permutations of iconic moments that you might even begin to doubt you've seen anything like them before. If a cosmic horror haunted house film in the vein of 1930s weird fiction sounds appealing, then Insidious is the film for you.
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