Insidious is scary-ass fun. Your goose-pimples will have goose-pimples. James Wan, the director of Saw, has crafted a new horror film with old-time sensibilities that will likely redefine ghost movies for a whole new generation. Wan, together with Saw partner Leigh Whannell and producer Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity), have succeeded in making a chilling haunted house film – full of all the expected constructs, jumps and thrills – that is as scary as classics like Poltergeist (1982), The Haunting (1963) and The Amityville Horror (1979). With a smart script, tastefully atmospheric direction and a solid cast (including character actor favorite Lin Shaye), this movie will make you scream, jump out of your seat and gasp for air – all the while having a great time.
Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the first three Saw films and Dead Silence, has penned a story that uses every trick and cliche available to both support the expectation and pull the rug out from under the audience, weaving it all around a solid set of characters. In the story, the Lambert family move into a new house where they begin to experience unexplainable noises and shadows. When the oldest son slips into a coma after hitting his head, the activity escalates and the family moves to a new home. However this does little to stop the hauntings and they are forced to bring in outside help. The story is focused on the Lambert family, particularly father Josh (Patrick Wilson), mother Renai (Rose Byrne) and son Dalton (Ty Simpkins), which goes a long way in keeping the film grounded, especially during the concluding scenes. Whannell makes their relationships real, flawed and believable. He also is able to throw every trick from the haunted house manual into the script without losing focus, mainly due to a deliberate pacing and a controlled escalation of events.
Wan’s direction is full of atmosphere, an important ingredient is setting up a ghostly tale. The homes are full of shadows and dread. The film is rarely lit with bright colors or sunshine, even the daytime is imposing. When the lights do go out, forget it – you’re toast. When in the houses, Wan’s camera masterfully and purposely scans each room, each setting, keeping the audience keenly aware of the surroundings, always looking for a sign, a shadow or movement. This keeps the audience on edge; anything can happen and generally does. He also has a close rein on the tempo of Insidious as well. Everything is perfectly timed, the increasing scares, the lighter moments, the spacing between jumps. He knows how to set the audience up never providing more than a brief false sense of security. Just when he allows a chance to breathe, he ramps up the chills. Nowhere is safe, no one is safe. He makes the most out of Whannell’s script, the creepy sound design, a terrific cast and subtle, yet highly effective, special effects. Contrary to Wan’s Saw film, Insidious does not have gore or hideous traps, the fear is high on suspense, mood and the unknown. It’s Wan’s best work to date.
Insidious is perfectly cast with everyone hitting the mark, but the stand out performance is Lin Shaye as the paranormal investigator, Elise Rainier. Shaye is talented character actor with a long and varied career. She’s that face you recognize (“Oh, it’s her!”). With well over a 100 films behind her, this may become her most accomplished role. This works to the film’s advantage as she provides a sense of familiarity, as sense of trust to the explanations she is about to drop in the family’s lap. She energizes the film as well when she makes her entrance and the film was already electric by the time she does so. Her face is so expressive, she doesn’t have to say anything to convey the horrors that lie in the dark, just out of sight. She sees them and that is scary as hell. As Josh and Renai, the parents dealing with both the uncertainty of their son’s condition and the fears of an entity that haunts their home, Patrick Wilson (Watchmen) and Rose Byrne (Knowing, Damages) are instantly likable and believable as a couple, comfortable in their relationship complete with joys, fears and conflicts, much like Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams were in Poltergeist in the early ’80s. Barbara Hershey (The Entity, Black Swan) is Josh’s mother, Lorraine and she adds a great deal of weight to the film. She compliments Shaye’s Elise. Between the two of them, they are instantly convincing that the Lambert family is in dire straights. Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson are Specs and Tucker, a pair of paranormal investigators that work with Elise. They provide both comedy relief and validation to the hauntings. They’re both marvelous in their roles. Even the child actors and supporting actors playing nurses and doctors and such are convincing; but in the end, the film belongs to Lin Shaye.
Being a haunted house picture, Insidious is dependent on the effectiveness of the ghosts. The phantasms are eerie, shocking and frightening. They’re everywhere and numerous. Except for one major exception, they are all similar in their appearance, different in many other ways, but recognizably human in origin: an old hag; a shadowed face; a tall, dark, imposing apparition; a murderous, insane woman; a creepy, dancing man-child. They all work and they are all scary. They keep the audience guessing and on edge. Then there’s the exception, the king of creepy, the man with the “face of fire.” More demonic than ghostly, there’s one force much more sinister than the rest, the one you don’t want to run into. While he boarders on the absurd with his outrageous design, he also succeeds due to the stark contrasts to the other horrific elements in the film – he stands out. His face is full of red color; and, when he appears, the shift from the washed-out colors and grey to his intensely hued features is visually startling. In addition, his character is so different that the others that, while they are terrifying, it makes him absolutely bloodcurdling. Together, they all come at you like the ghosts and goblins that jump at you during a horror-themed amusement ride. When it comes to “boo,” Insidious has it.
A terrific, entertaining, scary thrill ride, Insidious is what every horror fan dreams of. It delivers on its promises and makes the hair stand on your arms and the back of your neck. And it uses what many other films fail to use properly: cliches. Yes, Insidious is full of cliches, but here they work. Here they are used to the director’s advantage mostly because he either builds on them or exposes them, using them to misdirect the audience or to provide a false sense of familiarity. The ghosts are exactly where you expect them: under the bed, in the closet, in the mirror, behind the door, at the window. It’s when they’re where you don’t expect them, they do their most to get you. It’s all glorious set up. Wan and Whannell also handle their horror film like a comedian would a comedy, throwing scare after scare at you like the comic would jokes. They don’t all succeed on every person, but they are many and most do so tremendously well. You never know what is coming next. It’s unnerving. It will have you seeing things in the shadows for days. Expertly paced with chilling sound design and full of atmosphere, Insidious will make you scream… out loud.