Review: INSIDIOUS - A Homage To Classic Horror Cinema With Plenty Scares

rating: 3

(Tom's review re-posted as the film is released in the U.K. from tomorrow). The saying goes a film is only as good as its characters, something director James Wan seemed to have forgotten about when he introduced us to an uncountable number of detestable human beings in his enormously profitable Saw franchise. With Insidious, his homage to classic horror cinema, he seems to have changed his mind. So when Josh (Patrick Wilson) arrives home to find his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) sobbing on the front lawn claiming their house is haunted, the answer is yes, it is, and here€™s hoping - like his characters - this film is something to root for. Wan and his screenwriter Leigh Whannell have mustered huge amounts of affection for this project, and they invite us to look back at horror convention with as much enthusiasm as they have. But asking us to look back might be the problem. In 2009, Sam Raimi evoked the same nostalgic effect with Drag Me To Hell, his own play on classic horror, and a homage to his kinetic style of filmmaking. Wan seeks to craft something in the same mould with a considerable difference: whereas Raimi played it with his unique brand of humour, Wan wants to play it straight. The result is exactly what the marketing tells us, a kind of Paranormal Activity from the director of Saw, and it's a genuinely scary ride, albeit a ride we haven€™t been on a dozen times before. Josh and Renai are the kind of couple anybody might hope to be when they get to their thirties: not without problems, but still in love. What€™s more, they have three wonderful children and a new suburban home. The new suburban home part is to be emphasised when, during the unpacking process, there's an accident in the attic. Dalton, their eldest child, stumbles from a ladder, knocks his head and goes into a coma. But the doctors aren€™t calling it a coma €“ they€™re not calling it anything. Three months go by and Dalton's condition hasn't improved. He's been moved from the hospital to the house where a nurse visits each day. The doctors have reached a dead end medically. Josh and Renai are distraught. Then strange things begin to happen. The first half of Insidious is the film at its most effective and unsettling. When Renai struggles to find her muse one afternoon in the absence of her husband, crouched over the piano, she hears a voice over the baby monitor that most definitely isn€™t her daughter. It can€™t be. It€™s a raspy, inhuman voice that culminates in a terrifying, masculine scream. But she races upstairs to find the nursery is empty. That€™s just the start. Later, her younger son, Foster, shocks her when he asks to change rooms so he€™s away from the coma-induced Dalton: €œI don€™t like it when he walks around at night,€ he dead pans. Erk. The fact that, several horrific incidents later, Josh and Renai have moved house, gives us a connection with the characters and a willingness to see them to success. Whereas most horror duds defiantly stick their ground until the very end - despite being terrified out of their skins - these two relocate as quickly as possible. It€™s easy to admire characters with even an ounce of initiative in these familiar waters. Of course, it€™s not that simple. The terror has followed them. How? It€™s not their house that€™s haunted, it€™s Dalton. Insidious is desperate to direct our focus to classic horror convention. This is made particularly apparent towards the beginning as we linger on a shot of a dripping tap. As we progress, it becomes impossible not to see how much has been borrowed from the past. Thirty minutes later, and€ hey, isn€™t this the same movie as Poltergeist? It isn€™t surprising to learn that the Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg classic is Wan€™s favourite flick. Soon enough, our tormented couple are seeking advice from two ghost hunters, Specs (Leigh Wharrell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) (comic relief characters that arrive way too late to get any laughs), and all-seeing grandmother-type Elize (Lin Shaye), armed with gentle smile and psychic powers. It€™s at this mark that the careful tension that has maintained throughout is traded for a more conventional affair. Any sense of coming innovation is thrown out €“ a disappointing twist for a movie that seemed to be consciously acknowledging its forbearers and seemingly avoiding cliché, all at once. Everything you pre-empted comes true and jarringly announces itself as if it were a huge surprise. The story is reduced to the kind of garbage your brain shuts down for, where words like astro-projection just serve to ruin the fun and cut out the fear. Even Wan's clean direction, making the most of a freewheeling camera style and tracking shots, bows to choppy editing and cheap-looking effects. By the third act, it all becomes too much. The careful narrative preparations of the movie€™s first half are swapped for mediocre sequences that fail to deliver the goods, and the nostalgic touches turn out to be nothing more than exactly that €“ empty touches. There€™s no dissection here, just nods, which appear dated when used on such a non-level, especially when they€™ve been rubbed in our faces. One lengthy sequence, though somewhat eerie, feels more like the haunted house ride at Disneyland than a scene in a motion picture. All control seems to vanish. What Insidious does offer is scares, and does so in droves. Although the number-per-minute ratio dips with the running time, there are enough jumpy moments to ensure you€™ll be bolting the doors when it€™s all over. Emphasised by loud, sudden surges on the soundtrack, there€™s an admirable quality to these make-you-jumps €“ we€™ve seen them before, that€™s undeniable, but they seem fresh given the same, haunted house circumstances, an achievement that serves to make them all the more frightening. Despite its presence as a messy love letter to Wan€™s inspirations, Insidious brandishes enough modern horror to warrant a relative amount of praise. The gore level is minimal, a quality rarely afforded in today€™s blood-soaked horrors, as is the film free of any plot twists that serve to confuse and confound for no good reason. Above all, Insidious (enough of a good title to commission a movie on alone) is the story of a tormented couple that we can care about. If the ending proves forced and unnecessary, our expectations have been lowered by the time it comes around, anyway. And whilst it€™s not as good as Paranormal Activity, it€™s a sight-shot better than any recent Saw outing. We€™ll call that maturity, Mr. Wan. Insidious is released in the U.K. from tomorrow.
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