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April 3, 2011

How is it possible that the people who brought us the torture-porn of the Saw franchise and the fake cinéma vérité of Paranormal Activity could do it? How did they come up with a genuinely scary horror movie that doesn’t devolve into the merely shocking? Surprising as it may seem, that’s exactly what they’ve done with Insidious.

The Lamberts have just moved to a charming old arts and crafts house, complete with its own idiosyncratic creaks and bumps. It’s pretty much the archetype of a haunted house. Josh (Patrick Wilson) teaches at a local school while Renai (Rose Byrne) is taking time to work on her songwriting and raise their three children.

The oldest of these kids, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), takes to exploring the house wearing his superhero cape. In the attic, he falls off a ladder and hits his head, and the next morning he won’t wake up. It’s not a coma, the doctors say, but there’s no other good word for it. Days turn into weeks and months; Dalton is at home, hooked up to a steadily beeping heart monitor and fed through a tube.

The eeriness increases. Doors open on their own, despite locks and alarms; voices come across the baby monitor; Renai sees mysterious figures in the shadows. The stress builds up until Josh accedes and they move again. But the events refuse to stop. Desperate, they send their other two children to Josh’s mother (Barbara Hershey) who suggests they call an old friend of hers: Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), a medium who comes in a package with a pair of DIY parapsychologists (Angus Simpson and writer Leigh Whannell).

Whannell and director James Wan are veterans of the Saw franchise, and they’ve each made fortunes on pushing the shock envelope further and further. And yet there is no significant gore whatsoever in Insidious. Oren Peli is the “creative” force behind 2009’s Paranormal Activity, whose found-footage concept fell flat when The Blair Witch Project tried it in 1999. And yet things actually happen in Insidious; things that don’t depend on amateurish actors and bad camerawork to misdirect and confuse the audience.

What may be surprising to a production system geared to pumping the cinematic equivalent of high fructose corn syrup towards voraciously indiscriminate teenage maws is that quality filmmaking makes quality films. Having a coherent narrative is better than simply stringing along from one torture scene to another with some half-baked philosophy, or forgoing narrative entirely in favor of a night at the improv. Having strong characters is better than having cookie-cutter stereotypes. Having capable actors who can effectively render those characters is better than having ingenues with nothing to offer past their looks.

And that’s exactly what Insidious gives us: a well-crafted story with engaging characters played by a talented cast. Byrne and Wilson make a terrific dyad, though I think it might have been even more interesting to swap their roles in certain ways. Shaye is excellent as the medium, drawing us deeper into the underlying nature of the story at the same time as Simpson and Whannell provide some essential (and excellently-timed) comic relief.

If there’s anything to quibble with, Wan doesn’t really seem to know what to do with the climax. As the action comes to a head, the mood sort of dissolves into an overdone supernatural pastiche. We cut back and forth between a chaotic scramble around a desaturated house and a nonsensical otherworldly romp. It’s as if once the setup was all in place, they just decided to phone in the payoff. But there’s a lot of good up to that point, and it shows that there’s hope yet for the modern horror film.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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