In the era of LOST and Inception, a simple and straight-forward ghost story like Insidious just shouldn’t work. And yet, it does – brilliantly so – due to surprisingly subtle storytelling from the pair who brought us the original Saw. Maybe it does so in part because we’re so pre-programmed to expect twists and turns that when a story as direct and humble as Insidious comes along – it ends up blind-siding us.
Insidious begins with some nifty opening credits which set the tone for the atmospheric haunted house tale. We enter the lives of average couple Josh & Renai and their three children as they move into a normal-looking, suburban home. An ominous soundtrack and fluid, almost ethereal, camera movement lend to the foreboding vibe and the story is set up quickly – after discovering the vast attic, oldest son Dalton suffers a minor head injury but won’t wake up the next morning. Doctors can’t figure it out, and after 3 months they send comatose Dalton back home to his emotionally-stricken family. Then it gets crazy.
Bizarre goings-on begin to occur on a increasingly frequent basis, becoming more and more frightening as they do. It’s here where Director James Wan seriously ratchets up the terror, placing “jump scares” in unexpected places with little to no foreshadowing. Sitting in the darkened theater, surrounded by trusted friends – I still jumped and screamed several times. Fantastic! The reasons for the hauntings becomes clear, complete with expected family history. Nothing here is new – but it’s told so well with such effective frights that it doesn’t matter.
This is not to suggest that Insidious is without flaws, and yet somehow they still work – thank in large part to very good performances by the leads. Watchmen‘s Patrick Wilson is very good here in a performance that requires him to stifle himself purposefully yet still show that he is a caring husband and father. It is due entirely to him that the final 15 minutes of the movie does not seem ridiculous. The always-excellent Rose Byrne is also terrific and sympathetic in what could have easily been a thankless role of a delirious mom. Lin Shaye steals her scenes as an almost anti-Tangina (see: Poltergeist), and makes a caricature of a character into an honest-to-goodness person. She’s also the perfect foil to the pair of bumbling, bickering paranormal investigators accompanying her (including screenwriter Leigh Wannell) who provide the comic relief.
Alternating grainy, near-b&w images with the bright vivid shocks of color of “The Further” felt like Suspiria to me – it drew me in and made me scan the entire screen and soak it in. Similarly, some may find the screeching/screaming main-titles and closing-credits hokey – whereas I loved that the filmmakers went with the entire old-school presentation. Had he been presented any other way, the primary antagonist would have absolutely felt like a goofy redo of the face-painted evil Sith he’s sure to be compared to – but he’s shown so briefly that he never becomes more than a shadow allowing our imagination to fill in the blanks.
Insidious is proof that it’s still possible to make a successful, scary, PG-13 haunted house flick – all you need is a talented team and some skillful storytelling.