James Wan’s Insidious is an improbable concoction in that it manages to have it both ways. It’s undeniably overheated and ridiculous in its attempts to make the viewer jump with shock cuts and loud blasts of music. But at the same time the approach not only works on the viewer’s nerves, but it makes you unprepared for its moments of intense creepiness. Yes, it’s wildly derivative, plucking things with abandon from other movies. And it’s not always wise in this regard, but it invariably puts some quirky personal spin on the things it borrows, in turn creating one of the most enjoyably eccentric horror movies in quite some time.
Insidious is more than a little bit like an old spook-house ride at an amusement park. In fact, the old lady with the wild hair put me in mind of the cheesy clockwork mannequin witch outside the horror ride at the old Myrtle Beach Pavilion that both fascinated and appalled me when I was quite a young child. The difference is that the actual ride promised much more than it delivered, while Insidious delivers somewhat more than its atmospheric trailer promised. In fact, if I’d seen this when I was the age I was when I saw that spook house, it’d have scared the hell out of me.
The film is a fairly basic haunted-house story. It has the wisdom to start slowly and build its atmosphere of dread in the creepy old house that Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai Lambert (Rose Byrne) have just moved into with their three children. The early portions of the film slightly resemble a far more stylish take on the Paranormal Activity (2007) approach, which is not surprising since that film’s director, Oren Peli, is one of this film’s producers. But don’t get the idea that Insidious is anything like Paranormal Activity. It’s not. It’s more like a less ambitious—and more successful—version of Wan’s underrated Dead Silence in terms of style and atmosphere.
As the story progresses, their oldest child, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), suffers a fall while exploring—being drawn to—the attic, and slips into something like a coma that the doctors are powerless to explain the next day. The house proceeds to get creepier and seemingly more openly malevolent after this, so they move to a new house, only to find it’s not the house that’s haunted, it’s Dalton. The explanation for this is forthcoming when Josh’s mother (Barbara Hershey) calls in an exorcist friend of hers, Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye). That probably sounds more improbably convenient than it plays, because the script explains the relationship—though I won’t reveal how.
There’s been a good bit of criticism that Insidious is too like Poltergeist (1982). That may be true, but for me, Insidious is much more effective—perhaps because it lacks the massive Spielberg budget of the earlier film. I’ve also seen criticism that the red-faced demon that appears in the film looks like Darth Maul, but that never occurred to me while watching the film. In fact, it seemed to have much more in common with the monster from Jeepers Creepers (2001), especially when we see it in its lair in the nether world the movie calls “The Further.” Frankly, I have no serious complaints about Insidious—except maybe that now I’ll never be able to think of Tiny Tim’s recording of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” as anything but sinister. Maybe it always was. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence, terror and frightening images, and brief strong language.