Review: “Insidious” (2011)

If you have been within 100 yards of a television during the past month or so, you have no doubt found yourself beaten about the face and neck with at least one of the crazy-intense teasers for Insidious, the new film from Aussie horror director James Wan and his screenwriting partner Leigh Whannell.

I approached Insidious with cautious optimism. After all, even though I thought Saw (the duo’s first effort) was a laugh riot of a misfire , it did show a glimmer of storytelling promise and a heap of genre love on the parts of the two filmmakers (likewise the follow-up Dead Silence, which a friend of mine perfectly described as “absolutely terrifying if you are afraid of green smoke”).

And while Insidious unfortunately isn’t the out-and-out reinvention of the haunted house story that it clearly intends to be, it at least is shamelessly devout in its simple aim to scare you out of your pants at least once by throwing pretty much every trick in the book at you (creepy kids! masks! twins! crayon scribblings! hags! Tiny Tim!).

Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson

I don’t think I can say this too many times: Insidious is a hot mess. It’s madly uneven, it feels cheap, it has no regard for traditional structure, and half of the attempted scares are absolutely HILARIOUS in their execution. But I loved it. I don’t know if it’s safe to say it’s a camp enjoyment, like with say a Showgirls, because I don’t think that this movie is that wildly off-base or over-the-top.

But the approach here was clearly to throw the whole haunted house casserole at the wall and see what sticks – and while some of it does stick, a lot of it ends up on your shoes. So it’s basically the horror equivalent of a Mel Brooks comedy (maybe like this one?).

But when it DOES stick, by gum, it’s awesome. I jumped out of my seat on more than one occasion, and for the first time in quite a while it wasn’t because of loud music stingers, jump-cuts, or fear of bedbugs . Wan slips his spooks into everyday domestic life, sometimes forcing you to search the frame for something nasty: “Wait, was that a little boy that Rose Byrne just passed in the laundry room and didn’t notice?”

It’s these scenes (mostly in the first hour) that make this movie a fun ride. Ever-humpadelic Patrick Wilson – dutifully filling the beefcakey suburban dad role made iconic by Craig T. Nelson in Poltergeist – isn’t given much to do other than look adorable and put-upon, until a third-act twist makes him more of a player (and Byrne – who does a great job shouldering most of the work through the real spooky bits – much less of one).

Leigh Whannell and Lin Shaye get "Insidious"

Along for the ride is genre mainstay Lin Shaye (2001 Maniacs, Dead End), who turns in a nicely-crafted performance as a very modern kind of medium – no weird little Tanginas or crypt-ready old gypsies to be had here. She brings along two scientist-types in the mold of The Entity and the techs from Poltergeist, who add a little levity (particularly when delivering sight gags based on a few of the most memorable moments from these prior films), and – speaking of The EntityBarbara Hershey, cementing her career comeback as Hollywood’s go-to Final Matron after last year’s Black Swan.

Things do, unfortunately, go completely off the rails in the last half-hour, barely pulling back on course in the last few minutes – it all just reaches a sort of critical mass of goofiness, and the hokum of it all outweighs the scares. But throughout, the DIY spookhouse spirit is palpable and energizing – if Poltergeist is the Disneyland Haunted Mansion of haunted house movies, Insidious is a small-town Haunted Hayride packed with low-fi jumps and punctuated by peals of nervous laughter.

While it’s uneven and misses the mark as often as it hits it, I found Insidious to be overall a fun ride – I even plan on seeing it again soon, which isn’t something I’ve found myself saying about a horror movie in quite a while. If you’re a fan of simple, sparse chills and duct-tape-and-bubble-gum ingenuity, you’ll find much to enjoy in this slight but spirited oddball spooker.

RATING (OUT OF 5):

Insidious is Rated PG-13 for scenes of supernatural terror, harm to housewares and wanton goofiness. It opens nationwide this Friday and is being sneak-previewed in several cities tonight (Tuesday, March 29).


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Buzz created CampBlood.org in 2003 to meet a need for a safe place for weirdos of all stripes to discuss horror movies from a queer perspective. Now that the campers have overtaken the Camp staff and locked them in the Arts & Crafts cabin he is questioning that decision.