Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Things That Go Bump in the Night: INSIDIOUS

Insidious is like a rickety old carnival ride where half the fun is knowing exactly how the ride will try to startle you but then getting startled anyway. Here every jump-scare with a blast of sound is every bit as surprising and painful as getting your chest slammed into a rusty safety bar with a quick scrape of the ride’s gears. Director James Wan and his screenwriter Leigh Whannell, who made a big splash with the original Saw, have made a simply effective piece of horror. I didn’t much care for their debut and haven’t seen any of Wan’s other films, but this film works on a primal genre level.

As in most any haunted house movie, this one begins with a likable young family moving into a house with creaky floorboards and dark shadows. The husband (Patrick Wilson) heads off to work and the sons (Ty Simpkins and Andrew Astor) go to school, leaving the wife (Rose Byrne) and their infant to first encounter the strange goings-on. Things begin casually creepy. First, misplaced objects. Then, strange sounds, floorboards creak with no one stepping on them. Then, is that a voice I hear, whispering ever so softly? Then, what is that figure flashing through my peripheral vision?

So far, these are all standard elements for this type of film, but the real horror starts with a scene that’s chilling in its matter-of-fact normalcy, in an everyday event just enough wrong to feel hopelessly horrifying. One morning Wilson heads upstairs to wake up one son who is sleeping in particularly late. He does the usual fatherly calls to “Get up!” accompanied by turning on the light. Then he puts a hand on the corner of the mattress and shakes it, calling louder. Then he puts his hand on the boy’s arm and moves it. But this small, helpless child simply won’t wake up.

We quickly learn that he’s in a coma. This is an all too plausible occurrence that anchors the escalating horror to come. Wan builds the tension with expert freak-out jolts like when, in the middle of the night, the front door is mysteriously open. Or when a dark figure can be glimpsed in the corner of a bedroom. Or when a mother rounds the corner to see a ghostly man standing next to her baby’s crib. That moment in particular reveals the knowingness with which Wan deploys these shocks. I saw the ghost before the characters and beat the soundtrack’s blast, which occurs only after the characters have had a scare. By that point, my stomach had already twisted into a knot.

By the time the third act arrives, we find typical haunted house material (paranormal investigators, a psychic, and a séance) played with a bit of a twist. Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say that the investigators (Angus Sampson and the film’s writer Leigh Whannell) are nerdy guys who are trying to one-up each other with their unwieldy homemade paranormal sensors. The psychic (Lin Shaye) is ominously warm and grandmotherly, until she starts dictating dark visions and insists on wearing a gas mask during the séance, which punctuates the already creepy scene with thick raspy breaths.

Insidious is scary but not frightening, surprising but not scarring. It’s not a great movie but it’s great, rickety genre fun. It’s not as great as Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, my personal favorite of this subgenre, but it’s still an effective effort. Wan plays with tropes and clichés and finds new ways (and some old dependable ways) to make an audience, at least the one with which I saw this, flinch, gasp and squirm at all the right moments.

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