Remember how good the original Saw movie was? The Saw franchise may have lost its way beneath a wave of over indulgence and inexplicable plot developments, but director James Wan and writer/actor Leigh Whannell have been hard at work ever since. Leigh Whannell might not be a name you’re familiar with, but he played a major part in the original movie and takes a significant role in their latest collaboration together. James Wan went on to direct both Dead Silence and Death Sentence, a highly enjoyable offering starring Kevin Bacon, and with Insidious he finds himself back in un-comfortable terrain.
Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) are a happily married couple with three young children who have moved into an idyllic new home. It looks like a haunted house - large, white and suburban - the kind of house you might find in a classic American horror movie. When tragedy strikes their young son, Josh and Renai begin to experience things in the house beyond explanation. We have a young child then, who may or may not be possessed by other worldly forces. In other words, the kind of demonic possession you might find in a classic American horror movie.
Before long, their lives are turned upside down by demonic forces, hell-bent on terrorising their very existence. Figures appear in the window, doors slam and the sound department have a field day. All in all, the kind of effective sound design you might find in a classic American horror movie. Forced to seek help from a team of quirky paranormal investigators, the kind of quirky paranormal investigators you might find in a (you get the idea), Josh learns a shocking truth about his past, a truth that might hold the answer to saving both his son and his sanity.
Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) acts as producer on Insidious, which gives you a good idea of what to expect from the opening hour of James Wan’s chiller. The haunted house/haunted son dynamic presents Wan with an opportunity to lay on the tension, delivering some genuinely effective jolts along the way. His first act restraint brings about a measured drip-feed of tension and tease - utterly convincing throughout, not to mention scary as Hell. It’s the not knowing that brings about the intrigue, with Insidious at its most effective when it keeps things simple, delivering a series of haunting set pieces that rarely stray off course. We know that evil is afoot, but Wan and Whannell keep their thriller grounded in reality, and Insidious is all the more disturbing for it.
The cracks begin to show when the paranormal investigators show up, an all too familiar array of crackpot mentalists who successfully extract the ominous tease used so effectively in the first act. A series of calculated and unoriginal set pieces follow, and the true nature of Insidious comes to light with unintentional hilarity. Josh is quick to show Elise (Lin Shaye) and her bloodsucking demons the door, but - as is often the case when you’re dealing with supernatural forces of this nature - it doesn’t stay shut for long. Wan and Whannell urge us to take a leap from the realms of reality to a world of fantasy-infused fiction - think A Nightmare on Elm Street and you’re bang on track - with entertaining yet uneven results.
The final act deteriorates into absurdity, with Wan failing to build on the eerie unease of the first half, choosing instead to peddle demonic puppets (again), booming jump cuts and Darth Maul inspired bogeymen. The tension is all but lost in a series of strange encounters that belong in a different movie entirely. Despite the sudden shift in tone - not to mention the complete loss of chills - Insidious remains intermittently enjoyable thanks to a bogeyman that evokes genuine menace, and a merciless stream of surreal imagery. The fantastical elements are overplayed at every turn, which feels at odds with the discipline of the first two acts, but they’re not without merit either, as long as you’re willing to go along for the ride.
Much like the young boy stuck between realms, Insidious loses its way from time to time, but Wan pitches the first half perfectly; delivering a tour de force of terror and tension that tingles the spine. The dreamlike finale is inexplicably daft, and the loss of genuine chills is unforgivable, but there’s much to enjoy if you like your suspense with a side order of silly. Not a classic American horror movie then, but a fun night in all the same.