A family is tormented by ghosts and demons and a hysterical shrieking score in Insidious, a howling pell-mell haunted house ride that is kind of awesome.
Consider the way it begins: a little boy is asleep in his bed as his room is filled with eerie blue shadows and a devil-witch appears, accompanied by the most emphatically horrorified horror-score you could imagine. Think Psycho times Omen to the Drag Me to Hellth power, turned to 11. And then we get the title card, hellishly red and filled with the word Insidious, which briefly made me think of 1950s B-horror movies as well as the ultra-low-budget variety of slasher film you can occasionally find playing in the smallest room of a local theater.
What the hell am I watching, I thought. Mwah ha ha ha! Hell, indeed…
After some unspecified trouble in some unseen earlier home, work-at-home musician mom Renai (Rose Byrne) and her teacher husband Josh (Patrick Wilson) hope that the big new house they’ve moved their two boys and baby girl into will be a happy new start for their family. Because apparently they didn’t notice that the giant, shadow-filled house with a massive, creepy-junk filled attic is a remake of Amityville Horror just waiting for a camera crew. Soon, noises, moved stuff and even the corner-of-your-eye appearance of a person has Renai going all kinds of bananas. And then there’s their son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins) who has fallen into what doctors are calling a coma. Without completely agreeing that the house is the problem, Josh decides to agree to Renai’s desperate request that they move out of the house.
And, psyche! The house wasn’t the problem at all! Spooky ghost-children and horrifying figures show up at the new house too. Renai consults a priest but Josh’s mom Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) suggests talking to longtime friend Elise Rainer (Lin Shave), a woman in touch with the Other Side.
Elise and her delightful, ghostbustery nerds who show up, a la Poltergeist, to determine if anything spooky is really going on. With converted Viewfinders and radiation detectors, Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) attempt to get a handle on the family’s problems, bickering the whole time about whose job is more important to the process.
Whannell wrote the movie and is, both in the story and in his onscreen role, the source of a lot of its fun. But you can probably also credit James Wan, who directed Saw and co-wrote it along with Whannell. Somehow, this movie got some of that movie’s wicked sense of humor but without the sleaziness that became a hallmark of the series. Among its producers, this movie lists Oren Peli, a writer on both of the Paranormal Activity movies and director of the first one. That movie’s love of the freak-out, the big “boo!” moment is evident here. Even with a score as big and loud and swooping as anything Jerry Bruckheimer has ever imagined, the movie still managed to sneak up on me and give me a jolt.
I’m not sure how quickly after the initial “what am I watching” moment I decided I liked this wacky movie and its crazy all-in tone, but it didn’t take long. The actors manage to both make you laugh and restrain themselves from winking at the camera. Hershey and Bryne are great at playing it straight — Hershey as the woman who knows more than she’s letting on and Bryne as a woman on the edge of hysteria herself. Then there’s Wilson, who, with his classical handsomeness, you can forget is good at being weird. The cast excited me not at all going in to the film and yet they came together into something wonderful — and wonderfully loony — as the movie unfolded.
Insidious is a treat not just for horror fans but for those who complain that they don’t make any good horror movies anymore — this one is a great haunted ride.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence, terror and frightening images, and brief strong language. Directed by James Wan and written by Leigh Whannell, Insidious is an hour and 42 minutes long and distributed by FilmDistrict.