Insidious (2011)
By: Julian on May 28, 2011  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
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Director: James Wan
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye, Andrew Astor, Leigh Whannell, Ty Simpkins
Screenplay: Leigh Whannell
Country: USA
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On the strength of Saw and Death Sentence alone, Melburnian filmmaker James Wan has generated for himself enough residual goodwill to sustain at least a couple of stinkers. I am very pleased to report that Insidious, his third collaboration with writer Leigh Whannell, did not need to bank on this goodwill. It is an excellent film and the best experience with horror I've had at the cinemas in recent memory; devastatingly effective at scaring its audience out of its wits.

Renai and Josh Lambert (Australian Rose Byrne and Hard Candy's Patrick Wilson) are a young husband and wife who move into a new, massive house with their little fellas Dalton (Ty Simpkins) and Foster, and their new baby. However, the house is obviously not all it seems, and Renai feels a presence within it. When Dalton has a nasty fall and slips into a coma the next day, the presence that Renai senses in the house manifests itself in increasingly terrifying ways – first as handprints on the unconscious Dalton's bed, to actual manifestations of a red-faced demon.

Oren Peli, the director of another prominent haunted house movie, Paranormal Activity, is listed as a producer here, and Insidious has hopefully provided him with a good lesson on what a real haunted house movie is meant to be like. Insidious is terrifying from its screeching, blaring opening credits right up to the final frame.

The performances are terrific. Rose Byrne, an actress who has exhibited her strong potential on a few occasions, is brilliant as the mother, who struggles with what she's seeing, first explaining herself as neurotic, then grief-stricken, before turning to desperate measures under the watchful gaze of her supportive but healthily sceptical hubby. There are some pretty strong shades of Patrick here as well: Ty Simpkins puts in a performance as the comatose oddling that would do the late, great Richard Franklin proud. But where Insidious differs from Patrick, to its benefit, is that we're quite unsure whether or not Dalton is a malevolent or benign force in the house. It's this particular element of the unknown – even though we're treated to some quite explicit and deliciously scary glimpses of the entities actually at work within the house – that serves Insidious remarkably well.

However, the inclusion of Whannell and Angus Sampson is unfortunate; not because the two aren't good actors, but because the comic relief they provide is woefully inconsistent with the tone of the film. The two play ghostbusters despatched to the Lambert residence to weed out the "crackpots" before ghost whisperer Lin Shaye comes in to do her thing. This part of the film is otherwise well done – Shaye does a good job with her creepy role and the dénouement is surprisingly understated and effective, for all of the parallel universe, dual-realities mumbo jumbo – but the tit-for-tat competitiveness and mock seriousness of Whannell and Sampson's characters, played for laughs, shouldn't have made it into the film. It breaks its stride.

This is a very different film to Saw, and it's remarkable to see how far Wan has come technically in six years. And while there's a (slightly) higher budget involved here, the differences between the two should not be overstated: Wan is obviously adept at generating highly effective scares in a very limited area, and the great majority of the action here is centred in a couple of rooms. Wan's direction is typically tight and streamlined, although he employs the use of some unfamiliar visual tricks. Some (the Drag Me to Hell-esque wall-to-wall title card coming on with a bang) are more effective than others (black-and-white stills), but if the film falters visually, it quickly picks itself back up again.

David M Brewer and John R Leonetti are listed as cinematographers, with the former new to features and the latter relatively seasoned, having worked for Wan in Death Sentence and Dead Silence, and cutting his teeth with genre pictures in Child's Play 3. The cinematography adds volumes to Insidious – the camera balances shying away from the horror with fronting it head on, keeping the audience firmly on the edge of their seat. Brewer, Leonetti and Wan do exceptionally well in the confined surrounds – after Saw, it was a matter of time before Wan tackled a haunted house film.

The best thing about Insidious is the way in which Wan and Whannell approach a horror film. It is easy to play for cheap tricks and jump scares – and there are a lot of them here. But it takes considerable talent to imbue every frame of one's film with, well, an insidious feeling of dread and terror – some of it in anticipation of the next jump scare, but most of it because of the sheer hopelessness of the characters. The best indicator of the success of a horror film is how close it sticks with you afterwards; leaving the cinema with the same, heightened pulse rate that you had after the final jump scare is usually a pretty good measure of success. Judged against that scale, Insidious is a rip-roaring success.
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