Australia’s James Wan and Leigh Whannell burst onto the scene back in 2004 with their debut feature Saw, one of several films that has been credited with spawning the “torture porn” subgenre of horror films. Despite no less than six sequels to this modern classic, and countless imitators in its wake, Wan’s follow-up films Dead Silence and Death Sentence have barely made a ripple in the public consciousness. Former Recovery “film guy” and writer Whannell has made a living with acting gigs, although he has been quoted as saying his primary reason for writing Saw was to get better roles for himself. Insidious sees the team reunite to deliver more scares.
Shortly after Renai (Rose Byrne, Bridesmaids) and Josh (Patrick Wilson, Morning Glory) and their three kids move into their new home, strange things begin to happen. Objects are displaced without explanation and their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins, Revolutionary Road) in particular doesn’t feel comfortable in his room. When Dalton mysteriously goes into a coma, with no medical explanation apparent, Renai determines that it is the house causing problems and uproots the family. However, when the problems intensify, Josh’s mother (Barbara Hershey, Black Swan) requests the help of psychic Elise (Lin Shaye, My Sister’s Keeper) to rid them of the phantom menace.
Insidious starts off with a frightening premise, albeit one that seems to have spent liberal amounts of time at the video store browsing at copies of Poltergeist, The Exorcist, The Haunting or any number of possessed house/child/mother films of the last few decades. It is in these early moments that Wan and Whannell are at their creepiest, bringing a house to life with groan and creaks that are vaguely reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Yet it is clear from the boldness of the Insidious titles, quite literally taking up the whole screen and pounding the hell out of the Dolby Surround, that subtlety is not good to be one of Wan’s strong traits in this film. Every spook, spectre or ghost that we glimpse in the early stages of the picture are there for a singular purpose: to make us jump. At this goal, Wan achieves much of what he sets out to do. Using the ubiquitous Rose Byrne’s wide-eyed-deer-in-headlights innocence may be a far cry from Polanski’s vision of a sexually repressed Catherine Deneuve, but she may be something of a spiritual successor (if you can pardon the pun). With Byrne as our de facto eyes and ears, we experience her terror, all the while unsure as to what we are seeing is entirely reliable.
In the back half of the film, things take a turn for the in-silly-ous with the introduction of some new information – and a trio of ghostbusters, no less – that threaten to cut the chords that are tenuously suspending the audience’s disbelief. Then the film proceeds to jump so many sharks that you may be inclined to call the RSPCA to report animal cruelty. The cast performs capably against the odds, although Hershey’s mother here is disappointing less menacing than she was in last year’s Black Swan and the capable young Simpkins is unconscious for much of the film. Until the final act, one-time superhero Wilson (Watchmen) remains conveniently absent, and this device really only serves to leave poor little Byrne alone in the house against a faceless foe. Insidious certainly knows what makes a horror movie tick, throwing classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street into the mix before the credits roll, and on paper this seems like it should have joined that canon. However, devoid of the set-piece shock-tactics of the superior Saw used so effectively over half-a-decade ago, this prowling beast fails to find its host.
The Reel Bits: Even with a decent set-up and a superior cast, Insidious fails to live up to the promise of its strong horror pedigree. Despite the early promise of a sufficiently creepy haunted-house tale, the lack of direction and sheer number of shark-jumps holds this back from being anything more than popcorn fodder.
Insidious was released on 12 May 2011 in Australia from Icon.