Written by: Leigh Whannell
Directed by: James Wan
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Andrew Astor, Lin Shaye
My Advice: See it in the theater with a crowd if you can
The Credits: Stay through them.
When not gallivanting through Time and Relative Dimension In Space, Fleshvine and I watch a lot of horror films. A wide variety, from comedies like Shaun of The Dead, to fine Italian cheeses like The Devil’s Nightmare, to classics like The Changeling. Watching all these different horror films, one gets…not exactly jaded, but you learn how things work. You can see the scare coming (if there is one) a mile away. So, it’s a rare and special thing when a horror film manages to actually scare us. The other day we went to see Insidious in the theater, and it scared the holiest of bloody bejeezuses out of us.
To be perfectly clear, this review contains spoilers. But if nothing else, know this: this movie is good. Very good. Go out and see it before you read this. The film is better with the less you know about it. This review will still be here when you get back.
[ad#longpost]Insidious is directed by James Wan, who wrote and directed the first Saw film (you know, the good one) and written by Leigh Whannell, who wrote the first two Saws. The advertising also boasts the production team from the Paranormal Activity series (there’s a 3rd in the works–yes, it’s a full-blown series now). It stars Patrick “Nite Owl from Watchmen” Wilson and Rose Byrne (set to play Dr. Moira in X-Men: First Class) as Josh and Renai Lambert, who combined with their three kids, make up your normal everyday working class family. Weird haunted-house type stuff starts happening to them and their son Dalton. What follows is, at its core, a modern retelling of Poltergeist. Except it’s good, which you wouldn’t think a retelling of Poltergeist would be.
What makes it work is the masterful pacing and direction by James Wan. It lures you in with simple haunted house things: doors opening, objects not being where one put them last. Before the end of the first act, there are enraged disembodied voices over baby monitors and figures standing by the crib. That all sounds a bit cliche, and most of the scares are, but they’re done in such a way that it scares you anyway. Scenes build tension like very few films have. 80% of the scares here are jump scares. Only the jump comes from tension snapping like a steel cable, and not the 167dB cat jumping out from behind the closet door. Plenty of long staring shots and slow zooms to ratchet your skin right up your back.
Wan also manages to trick you into scaring yourself. You expect one cliche surprise, and another sneaks up and clubs you over the head. Example: a character is describing a dream about the demon. Near the end of the description she says “I’ll never forget that voice”.
You: “Ugh, fine ok, give me the creepy voice. C’mon, I know it’s coming. Let’s go. Hurry up wi-OH GOD, THE DEMON IS STANDING 2 INCHES BEHIND YOU!”
The plot itself also twists these cliches. At one point we see what would be the son turning evil in most films, but no, he spends the rest of the film in a coma.
Around act two, the fabulous Lyn Shaye comes in as the exorcist, dragging along a duo of Geek Squad employees turned ghost hunters, who provide just enough comic relief to keep you from getting numb to the terror. She spins us a yarn about astral projection; how the son has left his body, wandered too far from the source, and now can’t get back. She even has a cute little name for the astral plane, The Further. Now several spirits and demons are competing for his body. This isn’t the first time this has happened though. No, it turns out the same thing has happened to the father, who has suppressed any memory of it. What follows is a wonderfully creepy seance involving some gorgeous old video/audio/photography equipment that I couldn’t help but drool over. Of course, for all the flash bulbs and gas masks (no seriously, the exorcist wears a gas mask) this doesn’t do much except make the demons think a Skinny Puppy concert has sprouted up around them. They love that; demons are huge rivetheads.
When the third act rolls around, the film’s tone changes. The father has to go in after his son, sneak past all the demons, and bring him back. It becomes a game of Capture the Flag set in purgatory. This is where the film may falter a bit. Patrick Wilson fights his way through the evil other-world-version of his house; meeting the all the ghosts from the film so far, as well as some of the cast from the “Black Hole Sun” video. Once he gets to the boss level, we get a good long look at the demon. This is almost never good…and still isn’t here. After about ten seconds of looking at the demon, your mind starts to chop it down in self-defense. He goes from “The Man with Fire on His Face” to “Darth Maul in Fuzzy Leg Warmers.” So, Patrick Wilson nabs his kid, and they haul ass back to their bodies, away from the demon, wading through a sea of ghosts. They’re in the home stretch when Wilson gets caught up by his long lost demon, The Old Hag (for something damn interesting and terrifyingly real, search for Old Hag Syndrome on Google). He finally has the strength to stand up to the old bitty and shouts at her until we see her float off into the darkness. Back in the real world, Dalton is double-fisting some spaghetti, the ghost hunters are packing up, and they all live happily ever after. Except for the big twist at the end.
On the surface, this film has a lot going against it. The Saw series is a joke to movie-goers now, and the Paranormal Activity series could go either way at this point. You couldn’t be blamed for thinking this is just more of the same and they’re just trying to make money. Plus, this is PG-13. For some odd reason, people seem to think that you can’t be scared unless a film is rated R. Neither of these things are true. I wasn’t going to write this review initially, but if I didn’t get this out somehow I was going to keep anticipating seeing demons behind Fleshvine’s head while she’s asleep, or a demon goth pacing back and forth on our porch. I still can’t hear “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” without seeing a creepy little ghost boy doing a jerky little leprechaun dance. This must be what audiences felt like when Poltergeist first came out. Go see Insidious; just don’t do it on a work/school night. You won’t be getting great sleep.