Shortly after Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) move into a new house, their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) has an accident and falls into a coma. Not long after Dalton, still comatose, is released from the hospital, Renai begins hearing strange voices and seeing phantoms. The family, convinced the house is haunted, moves, but their terrors follow. It soon becomes clear that it wasnít the house that was haunted.
Iím going to cut to the chase and tell you exactly what to do with Insidious: rent it and hope your power goes out at the seventy-five-minute mark. That will allow you to experience all of the good and miss all of the bad. The first hour or so is a pretty good haunted house flick, the rest an often laughable bore, the disparity between the two so great you may think youíre watching bits of two completely different movies that were mistakenly edited together.
Or to put it another way, the first half of the movie looks to have been made by people who admire the Robert Wise version of The Haunting, the second half by people who admire the Jan De Bont version. Is that a warning? Yeah, pretty much.
Written by Leigh Whannell (who also acts in the movie) and directed by James Wan (who also had a hand in the editing), the team behind the original (and also the best) Saw, Insidious works best when it hints at the horrors in the Lambertsí lives. Taking the standard route of most haunted house flicks, the first half of the movie offers up strange noises, half-glimpsed figures lurking outside windows or behind curtains, books falling off shelves, and electrical troubles.
Despite the fact these sorts of things have been part of the genre for as long as the genre had been around, the movie still manages to make effective use of them. What you canít see or understand is almost always more frightening than what you can, and the movie is able to play on primal fear of the unknown.
It is, quite naturally, when the horror gets literalized that the movie starts to lose its way. The moment the things weíve so far only heard or been given a quick glimpse of are trotted out in all their glory, Insidious quickly falls apart. What we see isnít scary--itís downright boring, in fact. Itís also incredibly silly at times (the fact that one of the evil creatures bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain Sith Lord from the Prequel Trilogy certainly doesnít help matters), downright stupid at others.
While it tries to ramp up the pacing, the fact that this section of the movie is so ineffectual actually serves to bring things to a halt. The pacing of the first two acts is more classical, falling line with the slow-burn of, say, The Shining but the third act, while more frenetic, actually seems longer, a slog through something so dunderheaded you canít wait for it to end.
You know that talk thatís been going around for a few years now about a remake of Poltergeist? I suppose you could say Insidious has rendered such remake unnecessary, as itís obvious Wan and Whannell studied that movie closely. Family with three kids, weird stuff going on inside the family home, a child who is more or less snatched away to another plane of existence, a female paranormal expert who works with two male assistants, and a parentís trip to the other side in order to rescue the missing child--heck, thereís even a bit with a piece of steak and a countertop.
I wouldnít go so far as to call this movie a rip-off of the Hooper/Spielberg hit, though, but at the same time I wouldnít argue with anyone who did. Besides, itís where the similarities end that helps illustrate what Insidious does wrong. Poltergeist left the particulars of some of its events to the imagination and was all the more effective for it. And what it didnít leave to the imagination it largely doled out in small doses over the course of the entire movie, and, again, was all the more effective for it.
Had Insidious not saved everything for its final act, not given it all to the audience in one unbroken stretch, it might have worked better. Not completely, mind you, but better nonetheless. (Poltergeist also made it clear that the strange events didnít go unnoticed by others. Despite the fact the characters in Insidious live in crowded residential neighborhoods, no one around them seems to notice all of the strange goings-on.)
Regardless of how effective what comes before is or could have been, youíd still have the last couple minutes to deal with, and this is where the movie really, really goes off the rails, violating its own rules and internal logic and having Wilsonís character to do something incredibly stupid, all so a ďgotchaĒ moment can be tacked to the final scene. Itís one of those moments meant to send audiences out in a fit of conversation, talking up what theyíve just witnessed in earshot of the crowd waiting for the next showing.
In my case all it did was leave me with a bunch of questions, most of them involving a key photograph seen about halfway through the movie. For example, exactly why is it different from all of the other photos seen in the movie, including the final one? Iíd like an explanation for that, one beyond its existence as an obvious feint. But hereís what I really want to know: What the hell did Wilsonís character do on school picture day?
The 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer is very good, although itís somewhat compromised by flaws inherent in the original photography. The vast majority of the movie takes place in dark interiors, with only a couple of daytime exteriors or bright interiors to break up the monotony. Colors are on the desaturated side, often looking cold and steely, a quality the transfer handles very well.
While for the most part the image looks as film-like as standard-definition is capable of looking, every once in a while thereís a flat shot or a bit of quick motion that smears, both of which are problems you often get with movies shot digitally. (All of Wanís previous directorial efforts were shot on film. I imagine this movieís tiny budget [reportedly less than two million dollars] is what led him to opt for digital video here.)
Black levels can fluctuate at times, crushing one moment and then running more toward blue-gray the next. The glow emanating from isolated light sources tends to band and blob.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is where the audio/video presentation really shines. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of its sound design, which at times is extremely creepy and unsettling. The opening scenes are generally quiet and front-heavy, with only some mild atmosphere channeled to the rears. Some effects and discordant musical stings (creaking strings, crashes of a piano that sounds as if it hasnít been tuned since Truman was in office) are slowly added into the mix, and by the time the final act rolls around the whole soundstage is pumping.
Dialogue, even when hushed or pushed back in the mix, is always intelligible. For a lossy encode, the low end is surprisingly strong and deep, heftily punching up the effects and music. English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles are available.
Horror 101: The Exclusive Seminar (10 minutes) is a chat with Whannell and Wan, who discuss the movieís influences.
On Set with Insidious (8 minutes) is a fairly standard making-of featurette.
Insidious Entities (6 minutes) focuses on the design and creation of the movieís otherworldly creatures.
What works in Insidious makes the movie worth a look, I suppose. Just donít say you werenít warned about the rest.