For Insidious, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, the team that brought us Saw, switch gears to deliver a different kind of horror movie. Leaving behind the blood, guts, gadgets and gore, opting instead for ghosts, demons, and the traditional trappings of haunted house lore, but with a twist. This time, “it’s not the house that’s haunted.”
Insidious sets up shop in familiar haunted house territory: a family, going through a rough patch and looking to start fresh, moves into a new house. (There’s something about this setup that makes it prime horror real estate.) Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, respectively) move their three children into a new house, ostensibly so Renai can concentrate on writing music. But before they’ve even fully settled in, their oldest son, Dalton, slips into a mysterious coma.
Three months later, as the family copes with Dalton’s coma, now caring for him at home, Renai notices a dark presence in the house. Objects seem to move on their own. She hears strange voices over the baby monitor. Locked doors open on their own. Renai constantly has the feeling she’s being watched. And in spite of Josh’s initial attempts to ignore it, all signs point to a haunted house. So, they move again. But the disturbances don’t stop, they get worse. The manifestations appear more clearly, more malevolent.
So, the Lamberts consult with a medium, Elise (Lin Shaye), who tells them that it isn’t the house that’s haunted, it’s their son. She tells the Lamberts that Dalton is an astral projector who has lost his way in a place she calls “the Further.” Without his astral body his physical body is an empty vessel, and the ghosts they are seeing are the spirits trying to claim his physical body as their own. In order to save their son, Josh and Renai must guide his astral body back to his physical body.
In spite of the “twist,” wherein it’s the child that’s haunted rather than the house, Insidious is fairly straightforward haunted house movie. I have to agree with the general consensus that it is this generation’s Poltergeist. Even though Insidious does come dangerously close to being a carbon copy of Poltergeist, it has subtle flourishes of originality which make it standalone. And fortunately for James Wan and Leigh Whannell, there seems to be an overwhelming ignorance of Poltergeist among those born after 1985.
However, this is not to say that you need to see Poltergeist to truly enjoy Insidious. I just think having seen Poltergeist will make you appreciate Wan and Whannell’s work more . . . either that or you’ll denounce Insidious as derivative. What can I say; the film walks a fine line.
To me, Insidious is a darker, creepier, moodier ghost story than Poltergeist, but not without its own faults. The third act doesn’t quite live up to the first two. The story starts to come off the rails in a rush toward conclusion, and the climax leaves something to be desired.
Still, apart from the slap-dash ending, Insidious is a remarkably creepy ghost story. I can’t remember the last time I saw an audience so uniformly frightened by a movie. David M. Brewer and John R. Leonetti’s cinematography creates the ideal old, dark house, bathed in shadow, utilizing every unknown nook and cranny. You’re constantly wary of what might be around each and every corner.
And Joseph Bishara’s amazingly unsettling score is to die for, a glorious phantasmagoria of discordant, atonal, Pendereckian strings. Coupled with the spot-on sound design of groaning doors and creaking floors, even those who close their eyes during scary moments can’t escape the horror.
Again, Insidious is not a perfect film. But it is one of the best horror movie I’ve seen in a while. Despite its faltering third act, I’d definitely watch it again. Sure, it’s very similar to Poltergeist, but Insidious isn’t as saccharine. Poltergeist is roller-coaster scary, bright, big and bombastic, a thrill-ride that leaves you with your adrenaline pumping, fun-scary. Insidious is a darker affair that leaves you wary of being alone in the dark, scary-scary. We’re talking scary enough to make Tiny Tim’s “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” one of the most frightening songs I’ve ever heard.