Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell have had a hard time following up their first feature Saw. The duo tried their hand at Hammer horror with Dead Silence, but reportedly fell afoul of an unhappy studio, while their revenge thriller Death Sentence didn’t exactly set the world on fire. They continue to rifle through classics with Insidious, which has built up some impressive word of mouth on the festival circuit.
Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) have moved into a new house with their two sons and baby girl. However, when eldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falls into a mysterious coma, Renai becomes convinced the house is haunted. But there’s something much more insidious at work...
So, after a Hammer homage and a Death Wish throwback, we’re given a love letter to all of our favourite haunted house movies. Wan and Whannell have created a jigsaw (no pun intended) movie that actually holds together surprisingly well. The first fifteen minutes are rife with cribs from The Exorcist, the music cues are highly reminiscent of The Shining, and the bangs and scraping noises will call to mind Robert Wise’ classic horror The Haunting. And when otherworld-expert Elise (genre veteran Lin Shaye) and her bumbling team show up, the film takes a direct turn into Poltergeist territory.
But it’s all done really quite well. The film is surprisingly, and refreshingly, po-faced about the subject matter, which is vital when things take a turn for the ridiculous in the final third. Wan uses a bleached colour palette which creates an unsettling atmosphere right from the start. For the first half at least, Insidious is damn creepy with some brilliant sequences as the tension builds. Reportedly made for only $1 million, the film looks very impressive.
However, the filmmakers aren’t content with creepy. Wan and Whannell also want to make you jump out of your skin and they rarely let up. When the jumps work, they work brilliantly. They’re sometimes ruined by showing a little too much, something that becomes increasingly problematic as the film progresses. As Elise convinces Josh and Renai to face their problems head on, Insidious grabs the kitchen sink and hurls it at the audience. Some of it works very well, and some of it really doesn’t. But it’s a fairground ride of a film that we haven’t really seen since Sam Raimi’s wonderfully delirious Drag Me to Hell. The Aussie duo know their genre, and Insidious is so entertaining that, despite its flaws, it’s very easy to like.
The film is cannily cast with solid actors rather than stars, although that may also be due to the limited budget. Byrne (Get Him to the Greek, Sunshine) and Wilson (Watchmen, Hard Candy) provide a solid emotional core, both convincing as a married couple and while going through the stages of scepticism to belief. Shaye (A Nightmare on Elm Street) does solid work, and Barbara Hershey (Black Swan, The Entity) pops up as Josh’s mum.
It’s very likely that the film will be much scarier to film-goers who don’t watch a lot of horror. Genre fans will either be charmed or irritated by the constant nods/lifts. While it may not be original, this is a well-put together mix of boo-scares and chills that may not be perfect, but it’s certainly entertaining.
Scary and well-crafted, it’s a bit silly and referential for its own good, but it is refreshing to see a film that has the courage to take itself seriously even as it goes for broke. Damn good fun and the uninitiated will be terrified.