Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Movie Review: Insidious

Insidious *** ½
Directed by: James Wan.
Written by: Leigh Whannell.
Starring: Patrick Wilson (Josh Lambert), Rose Byrne (Renai Lambert), Ty Simpkins (Dalton Lambert), Andrew Astor (Foster Lambert), Lin Shaye (Elise Rainier), Leigh Whannell (Specs), Angus Sampson (Tucker), Barbara Hershey (Lorraine Lambert).

It would be easy to laugh or at least poke fun of a movie like Insidious. It is, after all, a horror movie that really does not make any logical sense. But then again, many of the great horror movies don’t make a lot of sense. This is a movie about possession – out of body experiences, demons trying to take control of our bodies when we are outside of them. There is a lot of talk of astral projection in the film. If you wanted to, you could mock the movie. But it really is no less realistic than something like The Exorcist. And while Insidious does not reach the heights of that masterpiece, it is a genuinely frightening and unsettling horror movie. One that creeps up on you and gets under your skin if you let it. Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell may be the team behind the original Saw, but they were smart enough to get out while the getting was good, and had virtually nothing to do with the creative process that gave us Saw’s six sequels – that devolved further and further into torture porn. In fact, Wan in particular has expressed his distaste with those types of movies. He is more of an old school horror filmmaker – and it’s easy to forget that the first Saw wasn’t all that violent. It was a mind fuck of a movie that played on our fears, more than drowning us in blood.

The movie opens, like so many horror movies do, with a seemingly perfect family moving into a new house. The husband, Josh (Patrick Wilson) is a teacher, and the wife Renai (Rose Bryne) is a songwriter, who stays at home to raise their three kids. It is, like all houses in horror movies, a big, old, gothic house, with creaky floorboards and a strange attic. One of their sons climbs up to the attic one night, thinks he sees something, and falls off a ladder. He appears fine, but the next day, he won’t wake up. They take him to a hospital, and they can find nothing medically wrong with him to explain why he is a coma. Eventually, he’ll come home with them, still in his coma, and that’s when strange things start happening. Renai starts freaking out about what she is seeing, and Josh avoids it all by staying late at work. And, in a novel twist for a haunted house movie, this family does actually move this time – but it doesn’t help. Eventually, they will hire a strange old woman medium (Lin Shaye) and her two bumbling assistants (Whannell and Angus Sampson) to try and figure out what is wrong. Oh, and Barbara Hershey shows up as Patrick Wilson’s mother, which is never a good sign that someone has had a normal childhood.

Insidious is a movie that plays with two different horror genres – the haunted house movie, and the demonic possession movie, and does both with style, wit and flair. If you wanted to, you could play a nice game of spot the references during Insidious – spotting moments that recall films like Kubrick’s The Shining, Wise’s The Haunting, Friedkin’s The Exorcist, Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and a host of others. For me though, I was too caught up in the movie to do much of that. Wilson and Bryne give wonderful, lived in performances as the two parents, struggling with their own aging, and going slightly crazy trying to protect their kids. They sell their performances, no matter how outlandish things seem to get. They are aided a great deal by Lin Shaye as the creepy exorcist and Barbara Hershey, who seemingly does very little here, but her mere presence is unsettling. As the movie goes along, and the ghosts and demons start coming out of the woodwork, they may appear somewhat ridiculous in isolation, but in the context of the movie, they are terrifying. The extra creepy, constantly circling score helps a great deal, as does terrific art direction and sound design. Even something as routine in a movie like this as a séance is ratcheted up and intense.

Insidious is an excellent example of its genre, and exactly the type of horror movie I love. It is a movie with practically no blood, no gore that doesn’t get its kick by torturing people in front of us for our amusement. Instead, it builds its suspense slowly, than ratchets it up to almost unbearable degrees in the end. Yes, you could poke fun at Insidious if you really wanted to. But what would be the point of that? Few horror movies these days are this creepy and effective.

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