First thing’s first. Insidious is not the “most terrifying film since The Exorcist” as the generous pull quote that graces the film’s DVD/Blu-ray covers claims. It’s not even the most terrifying movie I’ve seen this week. Insidious is, however, a fun, fairly competent and surprisingly old-fashioned supernatural thriller full of jump scares, ear-splitting musical stabs, and enough hokey haunted house gimmickry to make William Castle blush.
Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) move into a creepy old house with their three children. Their oldest, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), is a dreamy young lad who fancies himself a super hero and, as kids are wont to do, takes to exploring his antique abode. Whilst searching around in the attic, Dalton takes a tumble off of a ladder and bumps his head. As the boy sits up and brushes himself off, a strange sound emanating from a darkened corner grabs his attention. Downstairs, Josh and Renai hear Dalton’s screams, and rush to his aid, finding their hysterical son sitting on the floor, nursing a sore leg and a bump on the noggin. They warn the boy about the dangers of exploring an old house and send him to bed. The next morning, Renai asks Josh to wake Dalton up for breakfast, but, when the boy won’t come to, they rush him to the hospital where they learn that he’s in a coma unlike any that the attending physician has seen before.
Flash forward three months. Dalton is now confined to a hospital bed in his room at home, hooked up to all manner of machinery, and fed through a feeding tube. While the doctors hold out hope that he’ll one day awaken from his mysterious sleep, Renai doesn’t share in their optimism. One day, while playing the piano downstairs, Renai hears some whispery chatter coming over the baby monitor. As she listens closely, the chatter becomes clearer and more pronounced, culminating in a guttural cry that sends her flying up the stairs to check on her infant daughter. She tells Josh about her experience, but he dismisses it as some sort of electronic interference, and the two settle down for the night only to be disturbed by a loud rapping at the door. Josh goes downstairs to investigate, but no one’s outside, so he double checks the locks and heads back upstairs. Meanwhile, Renai checks in on their daughter and discovers a man standing on the other side of her crib. She screams and Josh runs to her aid, but the man is gone. Suddenly the house alarm is triggered, and Josh rushed back downstairs to find the front door ajar, the chain lock he’d made sure to secure now dangling as if it were unlocked from the inside. After a series of similar incidents, Renai insists the family leave the house, and the Lamberts pack up their things and move to newer, less expansive digs across town.
Once in their new home, Renai immediately discovers that the force that haunted them at the other house has followed them here, and seeks the aid of a local priest as well as Josh’s mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey). Lorraine is surprisingly understanding about the situation, while Josh is understandably angry and concerned about his wife’s mental wellbeing. When Lorraine also expresses her concerns about the house, an invisible force tears apart Dalton’s room, forcing Josh to consider the possibility of the supernatural. Lorraine suggests someone who can help – a medium (Lin Shaye) who specializes in just this sort of phenomena. Josh is reticent at first, but, when it becomes clear that his son’s time is running out, he accepts his mother’s offer, opening himself up to a startling revelation that will change their lives forever.
Written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan (the creators of Saw, in case you've been living under a rock for the past decade), Insidious is a throwback to the old-school haunted house flicks of yore, with some effective shocks, an immersive storyline, and a few somewhat refreshing twists that make it a little less derivative of the many films that obviously served as its inspiration (most notably, and, on occasion, quite blatantly, Poltergeist). The film’s at its best in the early going, where liberal use of a score and long, slow camera movements create a palpable sense of tension and unease, but, as the film progresses, especially in its third act, things get slightly silly and the tense atmospherics are usurped by lots of “boo” scares, a rather ridiculous demon-thing that looks like a cloven-hoofed Darth Maul, and the arrival of Lin Shaye’s Elise Rainier and her assistants Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson). While Specs and Tucker are obviously meant to serve as comic relief, I can’t look at Shaye without thinking of her turns in Kingpin and There’s Something About Mary, so her presence here proved most distracting (which isn’t a slight against Shaye. She’s a fine actress, as well as a memorable one, hence why I can’t shake the image of her sunbathing in the nude…yikes).
The script by Whannell is smart and avoids a lot of the pitfalls of these sorts of films. His characters react to situations like most normal folk would (as opposed to the imbeciles in Insidious producer Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity). They express genuine fear, concern, and cynicism, and, most importantly, do what it is the majority of us would do by fleeing the house they believe is haunted! I remember watching Paranormal Activity and just yelling “Get the fuck out of the house” over and over again. Here, I started to do just that and, lo and behold, I was greeted by the site of a moving truck and new digs. I was also a fan of Whannell’s nifty twist on the premise, having the haunting be more than just your usual ghost/poltergeist/demon by lending an element of fantasy to the proceedings. The concepts of astral projection, “travelers”, and the nether realm referred to as “the further” offer a nifty new perspective that make Insidious just different enough to keep me from railing on and on about its similarities to Poltergeist.
Wan’s direction, meanwhile, is quite impressive this time out, especially in the film’s nerve-wracking first act. Camera movements are slow and steady, with long, elegant tracking shots and clever bits of foreshadowing that keeps the viewer constantly off their guard, ready to jump out of their skin at the slightest disturbance. Were he able to maintain this style throughout, Insidious could have been a thoroughly unnerving experience, but, sadly, by the middle of the second act, we’re back in the sped up frame rates and jump cuts that he made so popular with Saw. Still, Wan does manage to create some truly spectacular and horrifying images that will stay with viewers long after the film ends, but one wishes he’d turn in his old bag of tricks and embrace the more sophisticated and disciplined style he employs so well in the first act.
Insidious comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Sony, and features a solid 2.40:1 1080p transfer that offers exceptional levels of fine detail, and compliments the film’s somewhat subdued color palette nicely. Blacks are deep and true but I did notice a touch of haloing during a particularly dark scene set in “the further” where a character is using a lantern to find his way through the darkness. There seemed to be a bit of digital noise around the light that was a bit distracting, but, otherwise, the image is really quite pleasing.
I’ve got mixed feelings on the 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track. On the one hand, this thing is blisteringly loud at times, and really does help to drive home some of audio-reliant scares (lots of musical stabs and low-range piano rumbles do the trick), but, at the same time, dialogue is whisper soft at times, and I found myself struggling to find a good balance at a comfortable listening level. That being said, the directional work here is phenomenal, with the track making liberal use of the entire soundfield, and the bass response is nothing short of earth shattering.
Extras include a short “discussion” with Wan and Whannell about the ins and outs of making a haunted house movie entitled “Horror 101: The Exclusive Seminar”, as well as another short EPK style Behind-the-Scenes featurette. Also included are trailers for other Sony releases. All supplemental features are presented in 1080p.
While Insidious is NOT the most frightening film since The Exorcist (that critic should be taken out back and beaten with a length of rubber hose for even suggesting such a thing) it is highly entertaining, occasionally quite creepy, and a refreshing change of pace from the de rigueur torture porn flicks that have dominated the genre of late.