INSIDIOUS (2011) Review


Directed by James Wan
Written by Leigh Whannell
Starring Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, Ty Simpkins, Lyn Shaye, Leigh Whannell

Haunted house films are a favorite genre of mine and while INSIDIOUS may not fit perfectly fit into that category, it does have all of the elements of a good old fashioned ghost story. There may be those who might not like INSIDIOUS, saying that it is too derivative of other ghost stories of the past. It seems director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell’s favorite ghost stories might be very similar to my own. Though there are scenes that remind me of POLTERGEIST, THE INNOCENTS (reviewed above), THE OTHERS, and THE BABY’S ROOM (reviewed above), PAN’S LABYRINTH, and other films, I think with the strong performances by its stars, some creatively crafted scenes, and music that is equal parts mood and punch, INSIDIOUS holds its own as a strong and original addition to the subgenre.

The strongest part of INSIDIOUS is the cast. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne both give fantastic performances as Josh and Renai Lambert, the couple whose son inexplicably falls into a coma and whose house appears to be haunted. Byrne does a fantastic job throughout the first three fourths of the film establishing herself as a loving mother, a struggling musician, and a distraught housewife. By the time her son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) is comatose, you feel her pain in having her child in peril and the desperation she feels to grasp at anything to help her son. Wilson acts as Byrne’s counterpoint in every way, playing a role that may cause some folks to not like him. He’s avoidant, distant, and defensive when Byrne attempts to convince him that something is wrong. But to Wilson’s credit, you do end up rooting for him to save his son in the end. At times, the narrative of INSIDIOUS is a bit uneven. You’re not sure whose story this is; is it the distraught mother’s? It appears so for about three fourths of the film because we follow scenes of her having numerous encounters with the supernatural. But in the last act, Josh becomes the central figure with a revelation that makes the negative aspects of his character sensible. In the end, this is the story of a family trying to pull together in a time of crisis.

A lot of the scares of INSIDIOUS come from silence and then a BAM! of music. To fault this film for it is to fault the entire horror genre. It’s a standby shockeroo that guarantee a jump/scream/laugh from the audience. In INSIDIOUS, it’s used quite often, but rarely as a false scare. That pounding on the keyboard sound only serves to intensify an already frightening image. Music composer Joe Dzuban deserves mention for a score that really makes you jump out of your seat. Right from the get go, INSIDIOUS blares gothic music in your face which reminded me of the Hammer films of old. Plus nothing speaks creepy more than Tiny Tim, whose “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” is a song used to full creepy effect in numerous scenes in the film.

As I said above, while watching INSIDIOUS I almost could go down a checklist of films scenes were inspired by. The use of the baby monitor as a means to hear supernatural voices is the central scare in THE BABY’S ROOM. Here is it just one of many effectively scary scenes. Though not original, I’ll bet audience members with children will be affected most by this scene in particular. Another scene involving the house alarm going off rattled me to the back of my theater seat, but I don’t want to say anything more so as not to ruin it. A later scene when a pair of ghost hunters show up for comic relief is torn straight from POLTERGEIST (one of the investigators even uses an uncooked steak to cool off a bruise which reminded me of the rotting steak from Speilberg/Hooper’s film). But being a huge fan of the GHOST HUNTERS TV show, I loved these scenes and the actors (writer Leigh Whannel cast himself in the role, as well as Angus Sampson) allow for an appropriate and not distracting break in high tension from the story around them. The narrative plays out a lot like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY if it were a film and not a mock-doc, though that isn’t so surprising given that the producers of this film produced PARANORMAL ACTIVITY as well. Though there were scenes that steered me to other films in my memory banks, director James Wan does interweave these scenes technically and creatively well. Wan knows how to set up a tense scene and does so over and over in this film. Props should be thrown to this film for creating a truly terrifying villain. The Lip-Stick Faced Demon, as it is called in the credits, is an archetypal demon creature, but so original that the scenes involving him are by far the most frightening. The first scene we see the demon is set up in such a bone-chilling manner that it will stick with you long after the film and follow you into your nightmares.

INSIDIOUS is not a perfect film. When the explanation of the spooky events comes from psychic ghost hunter Elise Rainer (played by THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY’s Lin Shaye), it is a bit clunky. The astral projection stuff is a fine hook to hang a horror story on, but Elise’s knowledge of the world the Lambert’s son is lost in had me asking myself “how does she know this stuff?” Shaye’s character is there to provide exposition, though. Normally, I’m annoyed with the character in films who usually serves the purpose of skidding the narrative to a halt with a long-winded recap/explanation to those too moronic to follow the story so far. But here, Shaye offers an authenticity to her performance–a skill I didn’t know the actress had since most of the things I’ve seen her in have been over the top comedies. Here, Shaye offers these explanations with enough passion and authority that she pulls these scenes off.

I hosted a screening of INSIDIOUS a few weeks ago in Chicago and got to talk with director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell afterwards in front of the audience. They commented on how small the budget was for this film. I have to say that despite budgetary restrictions, Wan and Whannell deliver a multi-million dollar final cut. INSIDIOUS is a film made by fans of haunted house films and throws just about every trick in the book in between opening and closing credits (by the by, the opening credits are fantastic and completely set a frightening tone for the rest of the film). Another reason I want to throw my support in INSIDIOUS’ direction is that, despite the homages to other films, it is an original film: not a sequel, not a remake. For a horror film to be released worldwide these days without those aforementioned qualities is a feat in itself. If you’re looking to see less remakes and sequels and more original horror in theaters, you best get your butt to the theater this weekend to see it. A more admirable feat accomplished nicely in this film is that, although it is stamped with the dreaded PG-13 rating, it does supply the scares and thrills that push that rating to the limit. With very little graphic violence shown, INSIDIOUS is a very frantic and spine tingling piece of cinema. To the filmmakers’ credit, they offered up creative thrills and didn’t go for the easy horror with gore or over the top violence. As with all ghost stories, the frights in INSIDIOUS lay in the anticipation–the running around in the dark, the turning of a corner. INSIDIOUS is a scary popcorn flick and is more fun than most films of its genre. If you’re looking for some fun haunted house horror, hit the theaters this weekend and check out INSIDIOUS!

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