Directed by James Wan
Screenplay by Leigh Whannell
Patrick Wilson as Josh Lambert
Rose Byrne as Renai Lambert
Ty Simpkins as Dalton Lambert
Running time: 102 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence, terror and frightening images, and brief strong language.
Tension, genuine scares, and a little silliness make for a fun, classy diversion.
Remember how the first Saw was actually a creative, mind-bending scarefest? The series’ creators Leigh Whannell and James Wan are back with this weekend’s opener Insidious. The new flick isn’t quite on par with the first chronicle of Jigsaw’s vengeful antics, but it’s a classic, uncomplicated ghost story with no frills—and chills to spare. Is it derivative? Sure. A little simplistic? Perhaps. Nonetheless it achieves its goal: between sudden frights Insidious builds tension that’ll have your ears pricked and your eyes roaming the screen in search of the next spook.
Renai (Rose Byrne) and Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) move into a new home with their two young boys and baby girl. After Dalton (Ty Simpkins) takes a tumble in the attic he falls into a deep coma, baffling his doctors. Renai, a struggling musician turned stay-at-home mom, begins to hear and see things she can’t explain. The family relocates again, but the phenomena don’t disappear; far from it, in fact. When an apparition attacks her, Renai calls upon her supportive mother-in-law Lorraine (Barbara Hershey). Lorraine phones Elaine (Lin Shaye), a spiritualist, to decipher the meaning of the haunting. “It’s not the house that’s haunted,” Elaine says (in the trailers). “It’s your son.” Dalton’s spirit, Elaine says, is trapped in a purgatory of sorts, one she calls The Further. As the distraught parents struggle to exorcise Dalton’s demons, secrets are revealed and otherworldly incidents explained. And of course, just when you think all is well…
Writer Whannell demonstrates a talent for transmitting information without pounding us over the head with it. We understand in the film’s opening minutes that Renai isn’t particularly happy; we watch her unhappily navigate the cacophony that is the morning routine of three children, witness her apparent exasperation with Josh’s snoring, and feel her frustration with her music. Josh, on the other hand, wears Chuck Taylors beneath his Dockers and sport jacket; this costume clue alone tells us he’s that “cool” teacher we all had in high school. He yanks on gray hairs and applies wrinkle cream to his crow’s feet. Wilson, who played the role of the “Prom King” in 2006’s Little Children, fits well in the role of slightly oblivious father. Whannell doesn’t bother adding much drama to Dalton’s descent into a coma, nor his hospital tests or journey to home care. Just enough attention is paid to the progression of events to make it easy to grasp.
But that’s not what audiences are in theaters seats for, is it? Whannell and Wan produce some genuine scares sprinkled with just enough lighthearted silliness to make the spooks genuinely spooky. Whannell plays Specs, one of Elaine’s tech geek toadies. Alongside his partner Tucker (Angus Sampson), Specs provides a little comic relief, allowing the audience to relax, maybe even smile a little, before the next big jolt. Horror aficionados love the genre just as much for its cheesy gags and one-liners as they do for its ability to raise the hair on the back of our necks—and when fright and just a tad of humor are combined, a lovely concoction can emerge.
Insidious begins with an ear-rending screech of violins and ominous crimson credits superimposed on a series of black and white, high contrast photos of an empty house. The credits, both beginning and end, are deliberately reminiscent of the classics. The last decade has seen more horror rehashing than original ideas, but Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell and Ti West’s House of the Devil managed to play on—and improve upon—the ‘70s and ‘80s movie versions of ghosts and demon possession. Insidious does the same, penning a short, straightforward love note to the things that made those movies so much fun. A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Lin Shaye was, one supposes, a purposeful addition to the cast and a nod to those of us who love the simplicity of that series. There are a number of plot points and one sequence in particular that prod directly at the Freddy Krueger legacy with, one might say, knives for fingers.
The ghosts of Insidious are corporeal—not much use of CGI here. There are a number of archetypal apparitions: you might recognize another version of the wrinkled, veiled old lady from The Others, or the porcelain-skinned, full-skirted twins from The Shining. But as they say, there are only seven plots in all of literature. It’s only a matter of time until there’s nothing new to be unearthed. At least Whannell didn’t make another Saw movie.
Paranormal Activity’s producer Oren Peli also produced Insidious—and those who hated Paranormal Activity will likely find a lot more satisfaction in this new venture. It’s by no means a perfect movie. Though it verges on silly, delivers a few trite lines, and is perhaps a little too simple, it’s the most satisfying horror flick you’ll see this spring. One hopes Whannell and Wan will continue to think outside the box and suggestively stroke at the classics to which they owe so much of their fame. We’re easing into a summer that promises big blockbusters, but horror fans don’t have much to look forward to in 2011; Insidious is just the flick to remind us what talented people can still do with the genre.