Haunted houses and questionable children have composed many a horror film, but there’s a reason they work. When they do so despite years of being recycled, it’s usually thanks to talent. “Saw” director James Wan found something of promise in “Saw” writer Leigh Whannell’s story “Insidious” and the same must’ve gone for stars Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson. Horror films rarely get that infusion of talent, and as such, “Insidious” does not get lost in that dark dimension of forgettable horror.
Josh (Wilson) and Renai (Byrne) Lambert have moved into a new home with their two young boys and infant girl. Like always, paranormal oddities occur in small doses here and there until one morning they find their son Dalton in a coma. A few months pass and they move Dalton back home. The freaky incidences increase and eventually Renai sees the ghosts. She convinces Josh to move them into a new home, but it gets worse, so they bring in a paranormal expert (Lin Shaye) who provides them with some shocking revelations about the state of their son.
Like “Paranormal Activity” (a film thats producers have credits on this film unsurprisingly), the idea is to mount tension through paranormal phenomena and expert suspense. Wan provides a number of perfect angles and color to achieve the various moods. As much as you’ve been spooked this way by films before, you can’t simply shirk the way the film creeps in — Wan won’t have any of it. In fact, nothing here in terms of scare tactics will come as a revelation; many with a higher jumpiness tolerance will likely find it boring in many regards. No gore or horrific images to be found here — “Insidious” does it old school.
Once Shaye’s character Elise and her two employees arrive on scene, the story mutates from paranormal suspense to other-worldly mystery. Elise explains what’s going on — something that involves Dalton’s soul being lost in a realm called The Further — and now they must rescue him. Whannell constructs an interesting mythology here and the story goes from horror to more of a mystery/thriller with demonic elements. In a sense he borrows from science fiction in establishing the rules of what’s going on. It’s mostly interesting, but in many instances flat-out weird to the point that horror purists might not like it.
The best way to describe “Insidious” is first half “Paranormal Activity” and second half something akin to Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me To Hell,” which equates to a nice balance between self-seriousness and horror fun. The “X” factor would be the performances. Byrne keeps Renai from becoming an obnoxious scaredy cat as her role’s importance dwindles in the latter half of the film, in which time she still keeps Renai relevant. Wilson’s character is no typical over- macho father figure or anything. Together they provide an unusual boost for horror, which typically strives for random faces with questionable experience.
In general, “Insidious” possesses a professionalism not often seen in the genre; most horror films go for cheap across the board from the budget to the talent to the thrills. Although “Insidious” lacks distinctiveness in terms of story, not an ounce of it can be perceived as immature or hollow. What a rare (but not unusual) treat.
Directed by James Wan
Written by Leigh Whannell
Starring: Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, Lin Shaye, Barbara Hershey