One can tell director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannel love supernatural horror films. They love creepy kids, haunted houses, spirit mediums, ghosts, demons and exorcisms. They love them all so very much that they could not bear to choose between them. Instead, they decided to make Insidious, a movie that incorporates all of the above. It is by turns boring, frightening, funny and ridiculous, but it is entertaining on the whole.
The very beginning of the movie guides us through the house of a sleeping boy where we see the face of a hag and flashes of a title card with an awful screech of old-school horror music in the background. After that, things slow down. The black and white opening credit sequence is decades out of date, and it gives way to a similarly well-worn set-up. A young, attractive family, with hints of domestic tension, has just moved into a large house. Josh, played by Patrick Wilson, is a loving but slightly disengaged father. Renai is a vulnerable stay-at-home mom and aspiring musician, played by Rose Byrne. We have a brand new baby, a younger brother and Dalton, played by Ty Simpkins, who is really the only kid that matters.
Predictable creepy stuff ensues. Objects are knocked off shelves or mysteriously misplaced. Malicious whispering is overheard on the baby monitor. Locked doors are flung wide-open by themselves in the dead of night. The last of these scenes is well-shot, creating a nice, claustrophobic sense of space and lighting within the house, but it is still something you have seen a thousand times before. The obvious slow build is kind of boring.
Things start to pick up when Dalton inexplicably goes into a coma. Renai starts to see people that aren’t there. A bloody claw-print appears on Dalton’s linens. The younger brother mentions Dalton walking around at night; this is his sole-contribution to the movie. After a particularly potent scare, Renai begs Josh to leave the house. And unexpectedly, he agrees. This is a refreshing alternative to characters that idiotically decide to dig their heels in as all hell breaks loose around them. It is always nice to see people with good senses in horror films.
But the haunting only intensifies. There is no single bogey man that keeps popping up. There is a little boy, a guy who looks like vampire, before they started to sparkle, and an entity that bears more than a passing resemblance to The Phantom Menace’s Darth Maul. Josh’s mother Lorraine, played by Barbara Hershey, confesses to seeing the latter in her dreams, and she refers the family to a spiritual medium named Elise, played by Lin Shaye. Two endearingly dorky ghost-hunters run some tests that confirm the haunting, prompting Elise to explain what is happening with jarring specificity.
Dalton is a natural astral projector, and his soul has wandered into a nebulous shadow realm called The Further. All manner of unpleasant spooks are using his uninhabited body as a doorway to reality, and a more malevolent entity is trying to take over his body completely. There are some neat concepts here, but the clear explanation has the nasty side-effect of killing the unknowable element that is so essential for horror.
The movie abruptly shifts in pace and tone at this point. While the beginning is a little too slow and the haunting understated, things intensify and the focus of the narrative shifts away from Renai toward Josh, who has a hidden past that effectively transforms the film into a heroic journey rather than a horror film.
The pacing also goes completely off-the-rails in its third act, trying to fill the void of mystery with over-the-top special effects and bizarrely creepy set pieces. Dalton’s brother and sister disappear into Lorraine’s care, proving that they were only included for a couple of easy scares early on. The movie also succumbs to an awful, nonsensical twist ending that does not set-up a sequel so much as it transforms the entire movie into a ludicrous parody of horror conventions. This movie needs an editor like a fat kid wants that afternoon snack.
If the film had a more focused narrative and better pacing, Insidious could have been a quality horror movie, in the same league as The Sixth Sense or The Ring. As it stands, however, it is most similar to 1982’s Poltergeist, which jumped the fence between funny and frightening with its mash-up of TV ghosts, killer clown-dolls and Indian burial grounds.
Despite its horrible pacing and lack of focus, Insidious is undeniably entertaining. If you are a supernatural horror movie buff who was bored to tears by Paranormal Activity, this movie was made for you. Fans of more subdued horror will have fun piecing apart all the film’s various influences. Even if you think horror movies are dumb and nonsensical, Insidious is an easy target for Science Mystery Theater 2000-style sarcastic commentary, and it makes an amusing accidental comedy in its second half.