Insidious is a fascinating cinematic exercise–a modern horror flick, stripped of the CGI shenanigans and blood-bucket excess of its kin. Instead, James Wan’s shoestring production relies on a lean and mean aesthetic, along with a spate of strong performances, to keep the horror churning. On that front, it mostly succeeds. Insidious may not be a masterpiece, but it’s still a very effective way to kill 101 minutes of your time. That may or may not be a backhanded compliment. I honestly can’t even tell anymore.
The plot is your basic Haunted House extravaganza. As the film begins, the Lamberts move into a home so rustic and gorgeous, you figure it’s gotta be the entrance to Hell. Josh (Patrick Wilson) is an overworked schoolteacher who combats his stress by adding even more stress. Meanwhile, Renai (Rose Bryne) struggles between launching her music career and raising three young children.
One night, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), the oldest and most curious of the Lambert kids, noses his way into the family attic. Naturally, he encounters some demonic beast, and screams for dear life. In his terror, Dalton tumbles off a foot stool and bonks the back of his head pretty good. Josh and Renai come running, but they see no permanent injuries on the boy. Everybody settles into bed, content they had just experienced a lucky break.
Cut to next morning, when Josh and Renai experience a parent’s nightmare: Dalton lies in bed, comatose. They rush him to the hospital, but the doctors can provide no answers. Dalton bears no medical signs of an actual coma. He should be awake, but he’s not. After several months of exasperation, the Lamberts move Dalton back home, and settle in for the punishing task of caring for him.
At this point, the family nightmare only seems to grow darker and deeper. Strange phenomena begin to wrack the house. Maniacal screams emanate from the baby’s room. A giddy child dances to music, only to disappear. (I can’t award Wan any bonus points for using Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” as the ghost child’s theme. That song creeped the bejesus outta me long before this movie came along.) Red handprints appear all over Dalton’s room.
As you might guess, all these terrifying horror tropes bring the Lamberts to the end of their emotional tether. In a novel twist, Wan actually has the family move out of their haunted house. That’s right gang–these characters in a horror movie actually do something smart. Unfortunately, the freakish happenings load up in the U-Haul, as well. Josh’s mom (Barbara Hershey) knows someone who might be able to help: Elise (Lin Shaye) is a psychic investigator, who brings two geeky sidekicks (Angus Sampson and writer Leigh Whannel) in tow.
Elise isn’t your normal supernatural detective: She’s a kindly, middle-aged woman with a reassuring voice–the resourceful grandmother the family needs right now. After a tour of the Lambert’s new digs, Elise drops a bombshell. Turns out, it’s not the house that’s haunted.
All that plot sets up a tidy little horror flick. Wan slow burns his way through the film’s first half, and it might be a bit of a slog for some viewers. After a few too many jump scares, I was ready to get things crankin’. When the action kicks in, the film gets nice and unsettling. Stick it out, a Wan will reward you with some eerie theatrics.
The director further scores with spot-on casting. Wilson and Byrne are the perfect power couple–attractive, loving, and level-headed. (Wilson will score even higher in Wan’s Conjuring series, playing a wholly different type of character.) As the medium, Shaye plays Elise like a real person, rather than a fountain of exposition, and this gives this film a welcome dose of humanity.
Aside from its wobbly first act, most of Insidious is pretty solid entertainment. Wan aims for classic mind-screw horror, and the film is that much better for it. If there’s any other knock on this movie, it’s in the closing scene. I won’t give anything away, except that Wan commits the hubris of setting up sequels and a potential franchise that no one’s asking for yet. This robs Insidious of the emotional resolve it had spent so long building toward, all in the name of an overly clever twist. Still, don’t let that steer you away from this movie. This is Halloween cinema at its finest. Mostly.
101 min. PG-13. Peacock.