Thursday, July 11, 2013

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, and Something Red

Year: 2011
Director: James Wan
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

When people find out I'm a horror buff they almost always ask if I saw Insidious, and until now my answer was no. I was much too caught up in the annals of 80's horror to be bothered with the new ones. My movie-watching field has since expanded and I found that I had missed out on one of the essential horror experiences of the year.

Did my experience live up to the hype? Well, yes and no. Insidious is chock full of borrowed elements and visual quotations from much better haunted house movies that were produced decades ago. At times it seemed like the filmmakers had bitten off more than they could chew, just throwing every ingredient in the pot and calling it a stew. Happily, it turns out that they were much more clever than that and even the most far-fetched elements fit into the narrative universe with very little manhandling and quite a bit of subtle foreshadowing.

Likewise, borrowing from other films isn't necessarily a crime. Many famous horror pictures wouldn't exist without standing on the shoulders of giants. And reintroducing classic elements to a modern horror audience was somewhat of a gift in the bland, chalky horror environment of the time. While Insidious didn't necessarily break any new ground, it was a step in the right direction for horror.

But let's throw all that analysis out the window for a moment. The most important thing Insidious does - and does well - is the rather impressive accomplishment of making a PG-13 horror film actually scary.

With frames like this, it's really not all that hard.

Josh (Wilson) and Renai (Byrne) Lambert have just moved into a new home with their three kids. Renai is a stay-at-home mom with dreams of becoming a successful musician, and the move was partially orchestrated so she can focus on her work. Her dreams are dashed for the moment when her son Dalton (Simpkins) falls into a mysterious coma and things start to go bump in the night.

It's easy to dismiss these early occurrences as stress or the house settling or what have you, but when she starts seeing mysterious people infiltrating her kids' rooms, she wisely decides that maybe they shouldn't be living in that house no more. To her dismay, the entities don't give up that easily and she calls in a medium (Lin Shaye) and her assistants (Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson - who I recently saw in the delightfully wacky Aussie flick 100 Bloody Acres).

The third act is where things start to get a little rocky as the parents try desperately to save their son. The climax is extended far beyond its capacity, the main villain is turned into a mockery of his terrifying self, and Josh exhibits some truly embarrassing Stupid Horror Movie Character behavior. This sequence is repetitive and features numerous false endings which drag the film on a good fifteen minutes longer than it needs to.

It's almost like being in a coma.

Despite the finale's shortcomings, Insidious is a well-crafted thriller that provides a lot of bang for its buck. Cheap haunted house movie scares don't get much better than this, and the red-faced demon that provides the film's major antagonist is unforgettable.

The film works within its PG-13 rating and thus manages to avoid being neutered by it. There's no need for profanity - this is a family with young children. There's no need for buckets of gore - that's not what this domestic horror film is about. It is about the fear of the things that go bump in the night. The fear of those dark corners in a place you know so very well. And the fear that your child has become ensnared by something so sinister that you have no possible way of saving him - whether it be a coma or a cherry red minion of the Antichrist.

Not to mention we are thankfully spared the torture of child actors.Yes, the main victim of Insidious is a young boy, but the film is truly about his parents' relationship and their attempts to save his life. Both adult actors are tremendous in their roles and Josh's fear of being inadequate for his family and Renai's fear of being trapped in her role as a housewife are the driving forces behind the most hard-hitting horror sequences.

This is a horror film populated by uniquely human characters that uses a classic haunted house framework to further explore the dynamics of its central family. It does have some unique spins on the genre tropes, but it mostly relies on tried and true methods to tell a story larger than itself. If it weren't for the ending, this movie would be much higher on my list. But it does have it and while it doesn't diminish the overall effect of a very good scary movie, it does knock it down a peg or two shy of being a modern classic of the genre.

TL;DR: Insidious is clever, insightful, and - most importantly - scary.
Rating: 7/10
Should I Spend Money On This DVD? Yes, this movie is great for slumber parties. Scary enough to have actual impact but not so much that you'll never sleep again.
Word Count: 899
Reviews In This Series
Insidious (Wan, 2010)
Insidious: Chapter 2 (Wan, 2013)
Insidious: Chapter 3 (Whannell, 2015)
Insidious: The Last Key (Robitel, 2018)

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