Insidious. 2010. Directed by James Wan. Screenplay by Leigh Whannell. Starring Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, and Barbara Hershey. Rated 14A. 103 minutes. Drama/Horror/Mystery.
4 out of 5 stars
There aren’t many horror movies that feel like the classics these days, except for a few. Even some of those few are mainly retro, in that they try to cultivate that type of throwback atmosphere purposefully.
The reason why Insidious is one of the true classic-feeling horrors as of late is because it’s genuinely scary – between atmosphere, tone, and a few creepy jump scares this is the real deal.
All the same, there are a couple small flaws, but none so flawed that they can ultimately take away from the greatness of Insidious.
The film tells us the story of Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson & Rose Byrne) who, along with their new baby, their two sons Dalton (Ty Simpkins) and Foster (Andrew Astory), move into a new house. It seems like a dream at first, as they begin to unpack and settle into this beautiful, picturesque type home. Shortly after the move, young Dalton is in the attic and falls off a ladder, hitting his head; though he doesn’t tell his parents about the last part. The next day, Josh goes up to wake his still sleeping son, except Dalton won’t wake up. He goes into a fugue, unconscious state, which the doctors refuse to call a coma, and can’t actually describe. Renai then begins to experience strange things – first there are unsettling noises, voices speaking in whispers over the baby monitor, then later she actually witnesses sinister apparitions in the night throughout the house. Josh doesn’t necessarily understand what his wife is going through, however, he gladly believes her; even so far as moving to a new house once the terror becomes too much for Renai.
Only after the second move, in a completely different house, Renai once again experiences the strange apparitions – a little boy appears in the house, changes a vinyl on the record player, and the runs away. She follows him, but then he disappears. Josh tries to help Renai, but doesn’t know how. In comes Lorraine Lambert (Barbara Hershey), Josh’s mother, who describes a frightening dream she had about Dalton involving a creepy dark demon. She also suggests there is someone she knows who can help. Lorraine brings Elisa Rainier (Lin Shaye) over, along with her sidekicks Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) – these three claim to be able to determine if spiritual/supernatural/otherwise-inclined entities are in the house.
Needless to say, things get… different.
I’m going to start with the, very few, things I found flawed about Insidious.
Though some of the jump scares were actually awesome, I think James Wan relied too heavily on the concept to push the scary factor of this film. Insidious does not need that jumpy aspect to scare anyone. Sure, there are the tough guys who always say they’re desensitized – and that’s fine – but I’ve seen over 4,000 films, a good chunk of those being horror, and I still get creeped out. I don’t mean that I’m crying or that I can’t sleep later that night or I have to keep the lights on and my teeth are chattering and I can’t handle it – I just mean that certain imagery, ideas, dialogue, whatever it might be, still creeps me out. And the fact is Insidious has enough of that without needing to make me jump with quick cuts, people behind others suddenly.
I really liked the score, and at times it was perfect, but often it played into that jump scare tactic. The title card at the beginning and end of the movie is awesome with the sudden strings, I love that. I don’t think some of the loud and startling string/instrumental stuff throughout the score served it well. Again, the movie has atmosphere and tone enough to creep us out. If Wan kept a couple jumps, cut a good few out, the movie would be even better for me; a couple of those jump scares only worked on my fat heart, jumpstarting it, and not on my fears, my emotions.
What really bothered me about Insidious are the duo of Specs and Tucker. Funny enough, as most know, Leigh Whannell who plays Specs is the writer of the film, and usually I find he’s a pretty good writer at that. However, I feel like the comedic bits in Insidious – the banter between Specs and Tucker as the Odd Couple Ghost Hunters, back and forth vying to be the top investigator in their field, the techie versus the artist/writer – really did no justice to the otherwise dark, ominous atmosphere and tone Wan cultivated throughout the rest of the film. Sure, there were funny parts between Specs and Tucker; Whannell and Sampson work well together as a little team. I just don’t think the comedy, dry though it is, fits in with the rest of the movie. I mean, there are plenty horrors that are either horror-comedies or they have that dark comedy aspect which compliments the horror, and some of those work great. I’m not against horror and comedy mixing. My problem is that the rest of the movie is so dark and high on the creepscale, I just think it would’ve been best to keep the small bits between Specs and Tucker even smaller; they were already only sparse, but there could’ve easily been less. The characters work well in the context if they were simply just playing two dudes into the paranormal, helping Elise (Lin Shaye). I really loved how Specs would draw things for Elise, it added an extra creepy quality to their whole process. I feel Whannell did not do the script justice by including them in the way that he did, though, it didn’t detract enough to ruin anything.
The script, other than what I mentioned, is solid.
What makes the script even better are the actors playing it out, along with Wan’s excellent direction.
I think having Patrick Wilson play the part of Josh Lambert adds a lot of charisma and charm to the role, which needs it, because the character is a complex one at times. Especially nearing the end, and leading into the film’s sequel. But here, he does a great job of being that sort of skeptical father at first when his wife is claiming the strange happenings are going on, and then coming around to see the truth: a scene where Josh is in Dalton’s room after Elise has explained where the boy is, out in The Further, capable of astral projection, and he discovers drawings Dalton did which all but confirm Elise’s “diagnosis, Wilson does some incredible acting and it isn’t often you see that calibre performance when it comes to haunted house movies.
Rose Byrne is great as Renai Lambert. I felt truly bad for her right from the get-go, even worse once that one creepy ghost-like presence appeared in her bedroom, and the way she sort of unravelled at times was spot on. It was a great performance. Particularly I loved the last scene, as she goes towards Elise in the chair, and as Josh, unseen, approaches behind Renai, she turns, gasping. It put the nail in the coffin. Excellent actress.
Of course you can’t have Insidious without Lin Shaye. She is tremendous here as Elise Rainier. The facial expressions, her quaint charm and friendly manner, the emotion and energy she brings – all perfect. One of my favourite moments, still, is early when she goes into Dalton’s room and sees the demon up at the corner of the ceiling, and Specs draws out what Elise sees – the way she whispers to him, you can just hear what she says, and then coupled with the actual drawing, all made me shiver.
I can’t not mention Barbara Hershey. She isn’t in this a great deal, only a handful of scenes, but she is solid as Josh’s mother, and I’ve always loved her acting. I bring her up specifically because I love her film The Entity, and I find that Whannell most certainly was influenced by it in his writing the script. Particularly it’s the technology and the presence of the team of “experts” which reminds me of The Entity. Not like it’s ripping anything off, but I definitely think casting Hershey had something to do with that film’s influence on Whannell and perhaps Wan as well. I’m glad, regardless, because I dig Hershey, everything from the aforementioned supernatural horror to The Stranger Beside Me to The Last Temptation of Christ and certainly Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha. I only hope her involvement has something to do with The Entity because it means Whannell, or Wan, whoever, is even more awesome than I already thought.
Easily this is a 4 out of 5 star film. Insidious could’ve been near perfect, if only James Wan hadn’t opted to use jump scares so often, along with a healthy dose of high and heavy strings, and the Specs-Tucker duo wasn’t so comedically prominent. There are great, scary moments here without those bells and whistles. The atmosphere is dark and deep, I really found it involving and tense. A good horror has tension and suspense in spades, and Insidious has got that, if anything. You can argue against that, but I won’t believe it. The tone is set with the great atmosphere Wan sets up, from the actual camerawork to the colours of the film. It all works together.
If you’ve yet to see it, do it now. The sequel is also great, and I love it just as much as this one, maybe even a little more.