Film review by: Witney Seibold
“Insidious” is half a very good movie, and half a really stupid one. I guess, then, that it averages out to “o.k.” in the broad scheme. Sadly, that’s all I can really say to recommend the film, as it’s largely a forgettable and not very notable haunted house picture from Leigh Whannel and James Wan, the creative team behind the “Saw” franchise, and “Dead Silence.” What they have made is a clear homage to their favorite ghost movie, Tobe Hooper‘s 1982 film “Poltergeist,” as it moves in a similar fashion to that film, and features a few nearly identical elements; there is an eccentric psychic woman, a missing child that must be retrieved from a ghost dimension, and a team of wisecracking paranormal techies who aren’t nearly as amusing as the filmmakers seem to think they are. Sadly, the filmmakers became so preoccupied with their cliched haunted house imagery (wispy, corner-of-the-eye image, creepy demon women, a playhouse Hell of demonic puppety knickknacks), and become so invested in their out-of-place, protracted action climax, that “Insidious” falls apart.
The film’s setup scenes are actually doozies, and are genuinely spooky, lending for a strong sense of dread for a good 40 minutes. An average white family has moved into a new house in a posh area of the suburbs. Mom Renai (Rose Byrne), a one-time songwriter, is stressed beyond belief, and dad Josh (Patrick Wilson) seems to want to actively escape from any domestic activity, preferring to spend long days at his high school. How a high school teacher and a stalled songwriter can afford such a nice house is never explained. Maybe one of them is a trust fund baby. But never mind. The house is decidedly creepy. It has large hardwood floors, and a spare, half-decorated design. Doors creak a lot. It’s a credit to the film’s photographer that he was able to create a real space, and not just a cliched haunted house.
The usual odd things begin happening. Book are found on the floor. Furniture is found moved. Creepy, whispery voices are heard through the baby monitor. Then one of Renai and Josh’s two young sons accidentally bangs his head in the attic, and falls into a coma (!). From there, the weirdness only begins to ratchet up. Banging sounds emanate from the walls. Doors open and close right before them. Lights turn on and off. And, creepiest of all, figures and faces begin appearing in the darkness. Josh is staying late at work all the time, and we learn, logically, it’s because he’s just creeped out by the house. When Renai, stressed out over a comatose son, and nearly mad with fear, demands to move, it’s to Josh’s credit that they actually do.
Of course, in their newer, smaller house, found by Josh’s mom, played by Barbara Hershey, the haunting doesn’t seem to stop. Indeed, there a truly frightening scene in which Josh’s mom has a daylight demonic vision that really startled me. In fact, all of the scares up until this point were good ones. Sure, they were of the old guard jump-out-and-getchya type, but, I have to admit, most of them got me. I was on edge and delightfully scared for a long stretch.
Unfortunately, this is the point where the film starts to fall apart, and to give explanations. Eventually we have the psychic (Lin Shaye, who is actually pretty good) who goes on spirit quests, and we have the terrible and annoying ghostbusters (screenwriter Leigh Whannel and Aussie stuntman Angus Sampson), who banter about as well and two electrical appliances. The “quirky” scenes were annoying and insufferable.
I won’t tell you what the twist is, or what’s going on or why this family seems to be haunted, suffice to say that it involves astral projection, a ghost dimension, psychic handwriting, and a final desperate rescue. For a simple haunted house picture, this film sure does backend the exposition. I’ve often been let down by haunted house movies, as they always feel the need to explain away the ghosts in some logical fashion. The explanation is never as exciting or as interesting as the mystery that precedes it. “Insidious” not only explains the reasons for the ghosts, but then goes on to add all kinds of weird backstory that only serve to distract. And then, even more disappointing, they don’t give any explanation as to why the ghosts look the way they do, or why these particular ghosts are around.
Sorry to be so vague, but I really don’t want to ruin it. This film’s first half should be appreciated, I think, although I can’t earnestly declare “Insidious” to be a hugely quality movie. I guess as a midday spook fest in the Spring, it’ll do. Or if you’re scrounging your local video store, hoping for something to take up the darker hours of your slumber party, it might play. As a film, though, it’s kind of limp.