There's a sense of homecoming in the haunted-house story Insidious, by the team of director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, who brought us the Saw franchise. Instead of dismemberment and sadistic tricks, we're favoured with a more conventional haunted-house and child-possession tale that harks back to horror films of the seventies and eighties, especially Steven Spielberg's 1982 film Poltergeist. The goriest moment in the movie is a mysterious bloody handprint which appears on a bed sheet.
Following the pattern of the Paranormal movies (whose director, Oren Peli, is an executive producer here) the story begins with one of those unfortunate real estate deals. A family moves into a rambling house where faucets leak, floorboards creak and something funny is going on in the attic. Josh (Patrick Wilson) is a public-school teacher and Renai (Rose Byrne) is a songwriter, who is trying to get back to her song-writing career after having three kids. Shortly after moving in, their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) has a minor fall off a ladder and goes into a mysterious coma.
Various kinds of weirdness follow: Dalton's brother says he sees him sleepwalking at night. Renai hears angry voices on the baby monitor and glimpses hideous faces in windows. As she becomes increasingly on edge, Josh finds excuses to stay late at school and avoid the family troubles. It's our first indication that Dad's distance may somehow be implicated in what's going on.
Throughout, Wilson and Byrne play these parts straightforward and there's an undercurrent of real anguish in the struggle of parents coping with a child's long-term care. The sharp widescreen imagery, the gliding camera and old-fashioned string-heavy score all make the opening of Insidious feel like a homage to less frantic cinematic fright movies of the past.
Then, somewhere around the halfway mark, Insidious takes a sharp turn in direction. It goes from haunted-house flick to exposition-heavy demonic possession tale.
Enter Barbara Hershey as Josh's high-strung mother, every bit as batty as she was in Black Swan. Next on the scene are a pair of comically-bickering ghost busters (Angus Sampson and screenwriter Whannell) with an assortment of hokey, home-made electronic devices.
Finally, we meet their boss and real paranormal investigator, Elise, played by Lin Shaye (perhaps best known for flashing her weathered breasts in There's Something About Mary). She's something unusual - combination of New Age family counsellor and exorcist. Elise introduces a number of Poltergeist-like elements, including a realm called "the Further," where hungry ghosts abide.
As compellingly offbeat as Shaye's performance is, she has to battle both with demons and an exposition-heavy script: Nothing slows down a movie down like people sitting around a living room discussing the meaning of "astral projection."
All this proves to be a set-up for the last third of movie, which turns into a theme park fright house. Lights flash, the soundtrack rumbles and demonic faces pop up over people's shoulders (including one red-faced entity that resembles Darth Maul from Star Wars). As with the Paranormal movies, there's an implied relationship between the presence of demons and cameras.
During the spirit summoning scenes, the ghost-busting team tries to capture images of the bad spirits using old-fashioned flash bulbs, which crack like starting pistols. This provides opportunities for frequent jump scares while making no literal sense. Perhaps the filmmakers' point is that ghosts, being stuck in the past, prefer the old technology, before everything went digital.
Not surprisingly, given Wan and Whannell's history, the set-up leaves lots of room for many more Insidious sequels to come.
- Directed by James Wan
- Written by Leigh Whannell
- Starring Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne
- Classification: 14A