I simply do not envy the filmmakers who feel inspired to make a haunted house flick in today's cynical age. What used to be so beautifully easy in The Haunting or House on Haunted Hill or The Innocents became a little bit tougher in The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist -- and nowadays you have to break out the video camera if you want to dazzle a young audience with your Paranormal Activity and your Grudge-inspired phantoms. But of course the haunted house movie is an essential sub-division of our beloved Horror genre, which means it's always good news when someone finds a fresh way to upgrade the essential cobwebs once in a while.
And it comes as little surprise to me to see that the horror-lovin' team of Wan and Whannell are the ones to take so many familiar parts and use them build such a nifty new toy. In many ways their Insidious is a pretty "unoriginal" movie -- but the ways in which they borrow from other scary movies are crafty, affectionate, and (weirdly enough) sort of unique. In other words, what's old is new again, thanks to plain old passion and effort.
The admirably straightforward terror tale introduces us to a very affable family: Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renee (Rose Byrne) have a lovely new house, three adorable little kids, and a pair of careers that keep them more than busy enough. We get the sense that this couple has gone through some rough times recently, but Whannell's screenplay doesn't linger on the issue too much. The problems arise one morning when their young son Dalton refuses to wake up. He's not in a coma, exactly, but the doctors simply don't know how to bring the kid around.
Jump to a few months later, little Dalton now resides (and continues to sleep) at home -- and then the noises start. Poor Renee is grief-stricken over Dalton's semi-coma, but she's also got two other kiddies to deal with ... and now it turns out that her house is haunted. Creepy noises on the baby monitor, odd thumps in the hallways at night, and just an overall sense of ... unease. Josh is skeptical but faithfully devoted to his wife, and so the couple quickly decides on an nontraditional course of action. Their plan is to...
What works best about Insidious, which is about as adoring a love letter to Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist as a good film can get, is how it takes horror flick concepts both old and relatively new and mixes them up, blender-style, and the result is a 95-minute fun-time ass-kicker that has as much love for the genre as it does in making you pounce out of your seat. Insidious has scares both simple and elaborate, from some truly creepy night-time visitors to a central figure of demonic malevolence that is sure to become a hit next Halloween. (Imagine Darth Maul crossed with Tim Curry from Legend.)
Wan and Whannell seem entirely intent on hearkening back to the '80s as far as the special effects go, which works as just another reason to admire the old-school approach. The viewer is not distracted by sketchy special effects or CG overload, which means they're able to slip right into the collective palm of Wan and Whannell -- and then repeatedly fall prey to the duo's wicked sense of humor. You won't find a much bigger fan of the original Saw, but in many ways Insidious is the pair's best film yet: it's entirely confident and it moves like a shot; it has characters you'll like and therefore scares you'll enjoy; it has some real darkness but it never gets too nasty; and it finds a pitch-perfect balance between homage and originality.
So clearly the filmmakers are getting more confident with each successive film (they also did Dead Silence and Death Sentence), but they're not the only stars of Insidious. Wilson and Byrne strike a flawless chemistry together; they tease and bicker like a normal couple would, especially in the early scenes, and their effortless normalcy is what sets the stage for all the occult-style insanity that pops up later. If you don't sincerely care for Josh and Renee, the film is sunk. Obviously that's not the case here. Among the supporting cast, little Ty Simpkins does a very fine job with a deceptively difficult role, veteran Lin Shaye shows up and steals the entire third act of the film, and Whannell (along with the great Angus Sampson) pops up just in time to deliver some very welcome -- and wonderfully modulated -- comic relief.
Plus it's always appealing to see the great Barbra Hershey show up, and here she has an intriguing role as a mama with a secret.
Perhaps best described as a high-end carnival "ghost ride" that offers thrills and chills both comfortably familiar and excitingly novel, Insidious is absolutely one of the most entertaining horror movies I've seen this year -- thereby proving (once again) that the people who make the best horror flicks are the people who love horror flicks the most. It's unlikely that Insidious will kick-start a stunningly lucrative franchise like Saw did, but I don't think I'd be all that disappointed if it did.