SXSW 2011: INSIDIOUS Review

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
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[With James Wan's Insidious now screening at SXSW we revisit Todd Brown's previous review.]

Though it breaks down some in a final act sees the tightly wound story seemingly split into a  pair of competing films - one an 80s style horror comedy, one a more 70s influenced deadly serious take on the subject matter - thereby lessening the impact of what it could have been, James Wan's Insidious still stands as one of the most purely entertaining haunted house tales of recent years. A film that neatly balances the need to feed fans a familiar formula with the need to rework that formula to keep it fresh this is lean, efficient stuff that gives fans what they think they want plus a little bit of what they hadn't yet realized they wanted to create one rousing crowd experience.

Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) have just moved their three young children into a gorgeous old house. It's Norman Rockwell's vision of the American Dream played out large, the young couple with their brace of young children living their seemingly perfect life. But it's not really. Josh - a school teacher - hides behind his work to avoid the responsibilities and pressures of home life, leaving Renai to struggle with the demands of raising three young children while maintaining a fulfilling life of her own. Things are still okay between them but signs of strain are beginning to show.

And that strain becomes dramatically more severe when one of their young sons - Dalton - suffers a fall from a ladder and -despite seemingly recovering at the time - simply fails to wake up the next morning. He's not in a coma, not exactly, but Dalton remains completely unresponsive to any sort of stimulus. And nobody has the first clue why. And then Renai starts to become aware of an increasingly obvious string of unnatural events around the house ...

Wan builds a firm foundation for his entry into the haunted house canon by playing things admirably straight and to the point as he establishes the world his characters live in and which his audience will share. There's no glam, no gloss, no distracting CGI. This is all the real stuff - sound design and atmosphere and realistic performances played without varnish. Played, for that matter, entirely without any musical score for much of the film, Wan only calling the audio enforcements in to bolster the specifically supernatural events.

In the early going Wan gives Insidious a very 1970s feel, building his film out of long takes and slowly mounting dread rather than rapid jumps. Even when the first ghosts turn up Wan keeps things understated. There are no big bangs or crashes, they are simply there and cannot be gotten rid of, and the film is all the more effective for it. The tone changes some as things progress until we finally get to the big expository moments and a comic relief duo of paranormal investigators - one of whom is played by writer Leigh Whannell - who feel completely out of place in the film but who are also so entertaining that it's hard to fault them for that.

Not perfect by a long shot but pretty damn effective anyway, Insidious is one of those films that ten or fifteen years ago would have been an ideal group rental for a group of high school kids looking to kill a lazy night together. It gives the audience just the right amount of credit and delivers just the right amount of scares while never forgetting that it's primary goal is entertainment.
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