“Last night I watched myself sleep … then I flew away”
Ever since James Wan and Leigh Whannell collaborated on what became a franchised sensation in Saw, expectations for the two were high. I haven’t seen their second film, Dead Silence, but I do remember press being positive and the creepiness of dolls—a motif the two seem to champion, (look at the chalkboards for an Easter Egg here)—quite unnerving. So, with the buzz on their newest horror film, Insidious, almost universally great, I became excited for what could be an intelligently told ghost story, something that has been lacking in recent years.
The tagline is ominous—“It’s not the house that is haunted”—and the ramifications of the phrase unknown for much of the run time. You see, the Lamberts, Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne), have just moved into a new home. The front façade seems like a well-to-do, yuppie family abode, the neighborhood affluent and the assumption that his school teacher makes a ton of dough of her composer collects insane royalties is cultivated considering their surroundings and the three children in their care. There is a divide between the two as it seems the brunt of the responsibilities at home fall to her, his quick disregard to help get the kids ready, take them to school, or pick them up a detriment to his character, especially after walking into the kitchen and wondering why their son Foster (Andrew Astor) is eating cereal on the floor.
But despite the blatant looks of exasperation from Renai towards her love, the two have created a beautiful family for themselves. Two young boys and a toddler girl keep them busy, but they care deeply for one another and when tragedy strikes their eldest, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), they rally together. It’s a strange, unexplainable coma the boy has fallen into, a rotted old ladder rung breaking beneath him, his tumble assumed the cause. Three months go by without change—the strain evident in the parents’ movements—and topping everything off is the house beginning to manifest voices and ghastly entities. Renai sees them day after day, the visages getting stronger and more formidable each time; her hysterics make Josh skeptical, wondering if his wife has gone insane. He does his best to stick by her, though, and willingly moves them to a second house. But, like with the first, the burly ghoul, the smiling sisters, and the flapper-dancing scamp have remained.
So, it most definitely isn’t the house—these ghosts seem to be haunting them. The manifestations become more real, pushing Renai to the brink of a complete fracture with reality and cause them to take extraordinary measures. Enlisting Josh’s mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), a woman who seems to know exactly what steps are needed to rectify the situation, they hire a team of paranormal investigators. And while the initial sweep of the house is done by two goofily catty men akin to the farcical hubris of the Ghostbusters, Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) find their homemade tools seeing through the planes of existence to uncover the evil lurking by their side. They confirm Renai’s visions and call upon their boss Elise (Lin Shaye), a kindly older woman with experience in cases such as this. It is she who then sheds light on what is causing the ghostly invasion, uncovering a family secret alluded to from the start when young Dalton asks to see childhood photos of his dad.
Insidious carries on atmospherically, its progression at times too laborious, making suspense quickly turn to boredom. And then comes a confrontation with the spirits—loud growls waking the baby crescendoing to muscled men pacing outside a window and then a split-second later inside the house. Light bulbs crackle and pop, blackness pulsates to uncover things not there in the previous frame, and the camera continuously soars through the rooms, panning back and forth with ease to make the static, impaired viewpoints heavy in potential scares. It’s a schizophrenic handling, though, since the disjointed nature makes the creepy moments pricklier but also the normal, plot progressing scenes a tad unsatisfying. Instances like the increase in Renai’s horror or the clarity of what’s happening in Josh’s mind happen on the turn of a dime. And while it keeps the pace going at a nice clip, a feeling that there are gaps in the story—excised sequences we need to show the growth of fear—can’t be shaken.
But Wan’s visual prowess does wonders to alleviate those sporadic lapses. When it seems you have time for questioning, the terror level suddenly increases and you forget what it was you were thinking, caught up in the frightful realm of malevolent spirits. Whannell’s handle on this paranormal horror is accomplished if his actual dialogue is a bit underwhelming—cutting through tense monologues from Shaye by ending them with a whimper for example. Thankfully, though, the film refuses to do the same because, while the quiet storm of its first act may infer a gradual move towards a conclusion, the second half finds its legs and progresses nicely towards a trip into the ‘further’, a journey risking pure evil’s entrance into our world. And when you see the creatures threatening—the looming old, veiled woman or the red-faced blackness of a demon, his own juxtaposing colors contrasting with his surroundings to create a menacing embodiment of evil—you begin to fear what could happen. You can’t ask for much more from a solid horror than a suffocating mood and artistically nightmarish aesthetics.
 Joseph Bishara as Demon, and Patrick Wilson as Josh in INSIDIOUS. Courtesy of FilmDistrict and Alliance Films.
 Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson star in INSIDIOUS. Photo Credit – John Darko. Courtesy of FilmDistrict and Alliance Films.
 Leigh Whannell, also writer of INSIDIOUS, and Lin Shaye in INSIDIOUS. Photo Credit – John Darko. Courtesy of FilmDistrict and Alliance Films.