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When it comes to supernatural horror, usually smaller, more personal stories, allow the audience to better connect with the events on screen, luring them into the world and priming them for some great scares. Take The Exorcist for example. The story revolves around one neglectful parent’s fight to save her demonically possessed child from a powerful evil. That small plot alone is filled with metaphor and emotional impact, which is one of the reasons why that film has been so successful. Insidious follows the same basic premise, but ultimately the writers try to add too much of an epic good versus evil feel to what should have been a film as intimate as The Exorcist.
Insidious tells the story of the Lambert family, a classic American family with two and a half kids. There’s the mom Renai (Rose Byrne), the father, Josh (Patrick Wilson), and their three young children. After moving into a new home, Renai begins noticing strange things occurring around the house. Books are misplaced, boxes full of things from their previous home are not where she left them, and strange noises are heard throughout the house. Soon, her eldest son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), apparently hurts himself in their attic one night, and the following morning is unable to be woken.
Desperate to find out what’s wrong, the Lamberts take Dalton to several doctors, who all say he has fallen into a coma but it is unlike any coma they’ve ever seen. As the days pass and Dalton remains in his coma, the supernatural happenings around the house increase in frequency and severity. Soon, the family is forced to vacate the house and find a new home. this doesn’t solve their problem however, and it becomes apparent that Dalton is the source of the strange happenings, and things rapidly get worse as the Lamberts seek the help of a gifted medium, Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye).
The first act of this movie plays out with all the spooky grace of a fun haunted house film. The tension set up by the brilliant sound design and creepy discordant soundtrack are amplified by the fluttering visions of doom that haunt Renai. Soon though, things become slightly cheesy as some ghosts become more and more visible, and eventually even attack Renai physically. The scares are still effective, but the film starts to feel different. As things escalate and Elise is brought in, this disparate feeling take full hold, and many spooky things are quickly explained away, robbing subsequent scares of any real mystery.
What starts out as a great horror film suddenly feels like a weird epic. When the heroes start battling the ghost and demons, you fall out of the moment start remembering this is all just a fantasy. This isn’t helped by the relatively weak make up on the ghosties and geisties, that looks great in the earlier moments, but looks campy as you get clearer and clearer looks at them. If anything, Wan should have taken a page from Jaws and revealed as little of the monsters as possible until things really get hectic and the audience is in his grasp.
That said, most of the scares were effective enough to get me to jump in my seat and raise my adrenaline for a few moments, and those scares are supported by some decent performances. Rose Byrne stands out for her portrayal of Renai. For most of the film she is the emotional connection that the audience is given to draw them into the world, and she plays her part very well. This is in stark contrast to Patrick Wilson’s portrayal of Josh, that suffers more from the writing than his actual work.
For two thirds of the movie he spends his time as the stereotypical skeptic, always setting what would normally be a crisis on the backburner as he just tries to keep things “normal”. Sometimes even when the evidence before him is totally irrefutable. Towards the end of the film he replaces Renai as the audience’s emotional link to the horror, and when he steps into that role he rises to the challenge easily. On the supporting side, the kids do well enough, and so does Lin Shaye as Elise, but its her bumbling sidekicks, Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), who really fall short. In almost every scene they inhabit, their lame bantering and cartoonish personalities conflict with the dread seriousness of this movie. It would be like having Jar Jar Binks present during the climactic battle between Vader and Luke in The Empire Strikes Back.
By the end of the film, you’ll still have some of the scares haunting you as you leave the theater (or couch), but for the most part Insidious underwhelms. The zany last act ruins all the build up of the rest of the film and leaves you feeling a bit cheated. If you want to see a great haunted house picture, go see James Wan’s other film, The Conjuring.