♣♣♣♣ 1/2 out of ♣♣♣♣♣
Sooo… strange things are happening in your house. From late night security alarms going off, to objects moving by what seems like themselves, and what’s worse? No one believes you. It’s shrugged off as some kind of stress reaction to the recent move… or perhaps an accident in the family. Your husband starts staying at work late because he doesn’t want to deal with what is becoming a grueling home life, and you are hearing things… Like whispering voices in the baby monitor, or shuffling around in the attic. Then one night, after a fight, you roll over in bed to stare at the empty space beside you to see a man pacing back and forth on your balcony- then he’s in the room with you, coming after you, and you are alone.
In James Wan‘s latest thriller Insidious, out this last weekend, we meet Josh and Renai (and their three kids) after they’ve recently moved in to a new house. Josh is a teacher and Renai is a stay-at-home mom/songwriter who has primary daily-duty when it comes to their two older sons Dalton and Foster, and baby sister Calli. The house is a beautiful old 2-story with a full attic and basement, and Wan films it creepy from the first frame. I love a good haunted-house movie, and there haven’t been that many good ones in recent years… however Insidious makes up for all of that waiting. A movie that is so well put together and so goddamn scary, that I was periodically checking over my shoulder to see if there was an uber-creepy-old-lady-with-a-candle behind me.
When I was a kid, I watched Poltergeist fairly early. It’s one of the first movies I remember watching besides Swamp Thing or Star Wars. It was also one of those, “I was just old enough to be severely scared” moments in life that tell more about me than 10 minutes with my analyst. I will have the image of that guy peeling his face off burned into my memory forever (thanks mom and dad). The better part of my adult life has been spent watching scary movies and horror films trying to get that same scare I got when I was a kid. There have been a few films that have truly scared me (and I’m talking jumping out of my seat, uncontrollable utterances of “Oh my god!”) over the years, like A Tale of Two Sisters, The Orphanage, The Shining, or The Devil’s Backbone… and now Insidious.
Insidious is a masterwork of low-budget film making (it was made for under a million and earned $13 million it’s first weekend, you do the math). James Wan has hit his stride as a director. After causing a huge splash with his first movie Saw, Wan made a few R-rated movies (Dead Silence, Death Sentence) that were… ok… and frankly I didn’t think he had a movie like Insidious in him. From the opening moments of dark silence Wan gives us what most Hollywood genre-makers don’t anymore, TIME. Slow-moving cameras, no Saw-like edits, and not a drop of blood (barely) is spilled… and yet it might be one of the scariest films I’ve seen in 5 years.
It’s made me think a lot about what scary is… and I don’t mean the BOO factor either, it’s more than that. Anyone can drop the camera down, pause long enough, and create a loud sound effect to get a quick scare… but creating an ever-building sense of dread and suspense where I’m riding the edge of my seat and chewing my nails frantically? That’s something else entirely. Through the use of tricks we’ve seen and heard before, Insidious crawls underneath your skin and keeps you terrified, and while there are plenty of BOO moments, they aren’t forced or due to an over-active soundtrack.
The story starts simple enough, with the family getting used to their new house. While working at home, Renai finds a wooden-ladder in the attic with a broken step (the light bulb’s string is just out of reach) and a door that won’t lock shut. Of course later that night, son Dalton fearlessly explores the house with his LED-lantern- only to come across the open door of the attic. He walks up to the attic and sees the light bulb, carefully climbing the ladder to reach the string he doesn’t see the broken step. When he climbs up to the fourth step he reaches for the next one only to have it give way in his hands, and he falls. Mom and Dad and Co. are downstairs playing with the baby, and Dalton sits up on the attic floor to hear a noise in the corner… We hear his shrieks as Josh and Renai run to his rescue to find him with a bruise on his forehead but otherwise okay. That night Josh dreams of his son sleeping, and when he tries to wake Dalton up for breakfast- he will not wake up. This scene is vital to the movie, and Patrick Wilson (Lakeshore Drive, Watchmen) handles it perfectly. His cheerful taunting of the boy while he believes he is sleeping that gives way to panicked shakes as he finds his son will not wake up… I don’t know if Patrick Wilson has kids, but that is exactly how I would react. The doctor tells Josh and Renai that Dalton has no signs of brain damage, and no trauma of any kind, he isn’t technically in a coma- he just doesn’t wake up. We cut to 3 months later, and Dalton is home in his own bed, still unconscious. The situation has become extremely stressful, Josh works late, Renai is stuck at home with all of the kids, and things start happening… out of the ordinary. The film ramps up from here and despite Act III being a bit… “Ok…?” Insidious comes in as a straight-up horror-film, in the vein of The Others, The Haunting, or El Habitante Incierto (a genre-busting Spanish film that is beyond creepy).
What are a parents worst fears? The death of a child? A horrible accident or disfigurement? What about a coma? Or perhaps the sneaking fear that you are losing your mind? That, despite your best and loving intentions… You can’t trust yourself? Insidious captures the old-school haunted house movie and frames it with current popular horror themes and tricks (it feels like a “real” version of Paranormal Activity in some places- but in a good way) to make a solid horror film. Take your date, take yourself, just go see this movie. If you like bumps and shrieks and long, dark hallways, run out to see Insidious.
It is rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence, terror and frightening images, and brief strong language.