Joshua Reviews James Wan’s Insidious [SXSW 2011 Review]

James Wan is back, and he is back in one hell of a big way.

Best known for being the man that brought us the harbinger of the modern day torture porn craze known as Saw, Wan has since moved on to revenge films (Death Sentence) and even more films with creepy puppets (Dead Silence).   However, it’s the world of ghost stories that’s apparently gotten the filmmaker working a much different, and higher, level here.

Insidious, the director’s latest team-up with fellow Aussie Leigh Whannell (who also appears in the film as one half of a bumbling Ghostbusters-like paranormal science duo), has the plot of your standard haunted house type film.   Family moves into a new home, begin to be haunted by random happenings and entities, ultimately to find out that the reasoning behind these paranormal events lies from within a past that in and of itself haunted.

Drawing seemingly direct comparisons to films like Poltergeist (if wholly unintentional, according to those behind the picture) this film may hit on some notes that are played by every artist stepping up to the haunted house piano.

However, it’s the moments of sheer audacity that makes this film seem like a jazz riff on an old classic.   Something wholly authentic, with remnants of previous pieces.

After truly popping on the scene with Saw, Wan as a filmmaker has become a rather unsung name within the genre film world.   The Saw franchise has run itself into the ground, and both Death Sentence and Dead Silence were admittedly weak pictures.   However, Insidious is a film so steeped in assured style, that this does seem like a film that’s been working its way through his and Whannell’s brains for years now.  A surreal combination of perfectly stylized jump scares, ‘˜70s and ‘˜80s style framing and cinematography so heavy on the atmosphere that the grain itself acts as a tension builder, Wan is able to take a story that we’ve seen a million times, and give it wholly fresh legs.   Little tidbits like the use of a gas mask or the Guillermo Del Toro style character design for the main demon, all make this relatively limp premise a fresh gasp of air, a gasp that I was in need of multiple times during this film.

It also helps that he’s working with one hell of a great cast here.

Spearheaded by the husband/wife within the film, Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, the performances here, while not superb or ultimately all that challenging, are toned really well, and the chemistry between the two is great.   Their characters are asked a lot of, but ultimately the performances are not the film’s strongest aspect.   Byrne is fine as a troubled mother, but strikes the same note far too many times, with Wilson being a stronger performance, but also one that while being far more realistic than many modern horror husbands/boyfriends (I’m looking at you Micah from Paranormal Activity), fails to break from the mold in any remarkable way.

The supporting cast is excellent here, featuring really great small little performances by Whannell, Barbara Hershey, Angus Sampson and Lin Shaye, these performances often give the film quite a bit of life, particularly Whannell and Sampson, who give the film it’s only collection of laughs, which ultimately mesh well with the relatively action packed, if not without flaw, ending. The film’s final moment works wonderfully within the world set up here, however, the film’s third act truly goes off in a direction that doesn’t work towards the film’s benefit.   Becoming much more based in the realm of fantasy, Insidious wanted to try and blend realistic terror with this neo-fantastical other worldly narrative conclusion, and it simply left much of that ending lying on the screen.   The scares were still effective, but it became much less a haunted house film and much more a surreal ghost story. It also became thematically quite different.   Very much a slow burn of a horror film, Insidious makes a complete tonal shift at the film’s third act, that makes it much less about this family going through an existential crisis, and much more about something otherworldly both narratively and thematically.

Also, the drama between the couple themselves felt a bit tonally all over the place.  Wan kicked off the film with two great acts of true terror, and a really great look at this couple and how their relationship is challenged through the onslaught of a new, outside force.  Like a home invasion movie in many ways, this couple has their relationship tested by these beings, and it’s a compelling look at the toll that takes on a person, on any level.  However, that’s wholly done away with for the film’s fun, but absolutely random final act. A weird mixing of tones plagues this film’s final few moments, but luckily hinders the film as a whole almost to no real impact.

That said, the film is truly an absolute Master’s class when it comes to the audio side of things.

Scored by Joseph Bishara, Insidious has what may very well be one of the best horror sounds capes we’ve had in quite some time.   Hitting every note absolutely on the head, the score is brooding as all hell, sonically bombastic in the best possible way, and instead of drawing me out of the film as many horror soundtracks do, truly engrosses the viewer into this slightly campy world that Wan has created here.   The sound design is also top notch.   Great horror is bred from great sound design, and this thing has exactly that, to the nth degree.   Perfectly placed within the film, perfectly pitched, and perfectly atmospheric, Insidious on a sonic level is one of the best film’s we’ve gotten in quite some time, genre be damned.

Overall, despite a slightly lackluster and ultimately uninteresting third act, and two lead performances that aren’t as deep as a film like this truly deserves, Insidious is everything that makes good horror good.   Brooding, atmospheric, and no-sleep-for-a-week scary, Insidious is simply one of the best pieces of horror filmmaking we’ve gotten in a very long time.

Insidious will be screening again on: