This might seem like a weird thing for a film critic to say, but bad movies don’t piss me off too much. They’re bad and that’s worth talking about, certainly, and yet they never actually get my knickers in a twist. Movies like Insidious, however, throw my knickers into a f***ing tornado. Insidious comes very close to being a great movie and then tosses the opportunities aside like so many pistachio shells. For every second of real, nerve-shattering terror – and there are many – there are many more painful minutes of familiar clichés and ho-hum characters doing little more than looking upset. It’s a scary movie but a mediocre film, and the result is so frustrating that good old-fashioned badness would have been a relief, if only for consistency’s sake.
Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson star as Renai and Josh, a reasonably happily married couple with three kids who just moved into a big new house. As with any movie that opens with people moving into a big new house, it turns out to be haunted. Soon their oldest son is in a coma, objects are moving around of their own accord and baby monitors are picking up spooky voices, which as of Insidious is something they’ve officially done more often than actually monitor babies. Renai and Josh are just reasonable enough to actually move away from this den of terror, only to discover that the demons have followed them to their new, even more generic suburban household. There’s no way to escape this horror, so they’ll have to take a stand.
Director James Wan (of Saw infamy) is a master of creepy camera moves and terrifying ‘Boo!’ scares. Raise your armrests and hold your date tight, fellas. But a few scary moments don’t make for genuine horror, and the unrealized potential is egregious. The scenes that follow the more shocking scares diffuse the film’s nightmarish intentions by ignoring the aftermath. Josh finds his son lying lifeless in bed, but instead of actually showing every parent’s worst nightmare Insidious cuts to three days later when the shock has worn off and the hopelessness of their son’s condition is a fact, not a frightening uncertainty. Then the film cuts to three months later, when even that overpowering sense of doom has had the opportunity to turn humdrum. Real life doesn’t seem too important to screenwriter Wan and screenwriter Leigh Wannell, which is a shame that lack of contrast cripples their ability to scare the audience halfway through Insidious.
By that halfway point things are at their worst and the horror has had a chance to nestle into the audience’s psyche, so naturally (ahem) the filmmakers decide that it’s a good idea to introduce wacky comic relief paranormal investigators to diffuse the tension. But they go too far, because the tension is diffused completely by the bickering Angus Sampson and screenwriter Wannell (doing double duty as a bespectacled ghost hunter). Even the great Lin Shaye can’t save this movie since her compelling matronly psychic character was practically lifted wholesale from Poltergeist. And once she starts explaining what’s really going on in the story you’ll realize that you have no reason whatsoever to be scared by the events of Insidious because the odds of it happening to you are approximately one-in-never.
Oh yeah, and the bad guy is Darth Maul. He’s pretty scary but he also appears to have let himself go since we last saw him in The Phantom Menace, and has set up a permanent residence on the set of Bioshock. By the end of the film all connection to reality has been severed and we’re stuck with ghostly fistfights and an ending more telegraphed than Morse Code. The pulse-pounding score by Joseph Bishara admittedly stands out, but a little too much. It may be the loudest musical score I’ve ever heard, and like the movie it’s trying so damned hard to scare you that it doesn’t always tell the story very well. It’s like somebody told Bishara the old adage that music is 30 percent of any horror film, and he said, ‘Screw that, I’m going for 90.”
But Insidious will scare you before it outstays its welcome, and if you’re just looking to be startled there aren’t many better movies to recommend. Well, actually there are lots of better movies, just not more jump inducing. (It has a new take on the old-fashioned séance sequence, and it’s freaky as hell.) It’s tempting to give Insidious a passing grade for that alone, but the film wears higher ambitions on its sleeves with a stellar cast and an oh-so-serious tone, and that jacket never fits properly. It’s a disappointment but a kind of scary disappointment, and only seriously recommended to audiences with enough disposable income to be comfortable dropping all their expensive popcorn to the floor.
Crave Online Rating: 4.5 out of 10