Review: Insidious (2010)

Insidious (2010)
Director: James Wan
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Stars: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins

Insidious is a strange hybrid of a ghost story. Writer Leigh Whannell and director James Wan drew inspiration and homage from so many different sources that they wound up creating a patchwork creation that shouldn’t work...but sort of does. There are so many shifts in focus and story, in fact, it would be hard not to talk about the film without spoilers. So be warned, I plan to bring up a few specifics below and I really loved going into this film completely in the dark (so to speak).

The film gets off to a slow start. Josh and Renai Lambert move their young family into new house where creepy things immediately begin to happen. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The first act of Insidious is a world filled with cliches and tropes (there’s a moment where a mother finds that her books have been moved and accuses her children of the ghostly pranks. Not only have we seen that exact scene dozens of times, but it doesn’t quite make sense with what we later learn). It’s not terrible, Rose Byrn and Patrick Wilson are capable actors and give the usual family-moves-into-haunted-house yarn some believability. Plus, I’ll give Wan full credit for sprinkling in some truly subtle (blink and you’ll miss them) and creepy scares. I mentioned in my Oculus review about the tired setups of all ghost story films these days, and Insidious follows it religiously.

Things pick up, though, when the film takes a refreshing turn, and the family actually decides to move the house. Of course, if things were that simple, there wouldn’t be much of a movie. No, it turns out it wasn’t the house that was haunted, but their comatose son! This is where the film begins shifting gears and gaining some energy. You could rightly level the criticism that Insidious become a thinly veiled Poltergeist homage at this point. However, there’s enough cosmetic differences to the same core story that I was okay with it. Besides, I’d rather it be hewing too close to one single movie than every haunted house movie ever, ala the first act.

You could also lay the criticism that the tone shifts dramatically here. Broad comic relief characters are introduced in the form of paranormal investigators, and the subtle scares are being replaced with more blatant jump scares. But again, the shift was unexpected enough to refuel the lagging story, yet still felt like it belonged in the same universe of the film. Plus, it made me realize, I had no idea what direction the rest of the film was going to go in, which I loved. So, there’s a change, sure, but it feels more like the next chapter of the story, than an entirely different film.

Things get weirder and more outrageous, yet I found myself loving every minute of it. We’ve got an old woman acting as medium utilizing some bold choices in equipment. Red faced demons crawling on ceilings. Unveiled backstories that connect dad to the current predicament.  Some of it is a bit silly, but it also feels fresh and inventive. I’ll take interesting and off-beat over safe and boring any day.

The final sequence of the film features Josh venturing into the astral world to save his son. Though I enjoyed some of the bits here, overall, I felt like the world could’ve been more imaginatively realized. Instead of something hitherto unseen and unsettling, we get smoke and the old house with a different color temperature. Still, the final chase is filled with knuckle biting tense moments and a few good scares. The final moments of the film are the obvious choice and only serve to undermine much of what just happened. But I suppose it does set us up for the sequel.

So, the first part of the movie is subtle yet common, while the second half is broader, yet interesting. Re-reading some reviews, I see I’m a minority in preferring the latter, but at least you know you’ll probably enjoy one half of the movie. Which half depends on your tastes.

3.5 out of 5
- Cameron Harrison

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