Won't anyone think of the Belgians: INSIDIOUS Review

I'm usually quite fast picking up on Asian films, but when you live in Belgium and you're waiting for theater releases, you're doomed to lag behind. A lot. So once in a while I review a "new" film that only recently opened in Belgium (and that I consider worth reviewing). Just as a reminder that global release schedules are still very much lacking.

James Wan (the man behind Saw) is back with a new film. It would be naive to expect him to reinvent the genre with every new horror film he makes, luckily Wan himself is smart enough not to fall into that very trap. Insidious is a film that borrows a lot from others, but originality is not something that is required to make a good horror flick. In the end, it's all about execution, and so there's no need to worry, Wan definitely knows what he's doing.

Whether you liked Saw or not, it's hard to ignore the influence that Wan's film had on the horror genre as a whole. Not only did it spawn a trillion sequels and rip-offs, Saw helped to polish up the image of the genre, urging other directors to use it once again as a springboard to broader recognition of their talent. Dead Silence and Insidious are nowhere near as influential and/or innovative, but as horror films they work just as well.

Wan's latest starts off as a typical haunted house flick. A young family moves into a new house, hoping their lives will make a turn for the better. Of course the house isn't as pleased as they are and before long they start seeing and hearing strange things. Wan simply goes through the motions of genre expectations, but from the very first scenes it's obvious that the man has mastered his trade. Even the simple scares (loud noises and flash edits) are very accurate and to the point, never missing their intended effect.

Halfway through the film Wan gives an interesting spin to the story and we're getting really close to Poltergeist territory. It's an interesting shift in focus that renews the interest of the audience and makes the second half not as obvious as initially expected. It's not that the film becomes wildly original all of a sudden, but the small twist is interesting enough by itself and makes for a more engaging finale.

When I left the theater I was convinced Wan must've had a decent budget to play around with. The camera work is slick, with many interesting pans and shots, the editing sharp and vivid and the general look of the film feels very consistent throughout. I was surprised to find out that the budget for Insidious was hardly any higher than Saw's original budget, and as much as I loved the rawer visuals of Saw, you can only show considerable respect for Wan if you see what he accomplishes with such a (relatively) small budget. Another testament that a film doesn't need a big budget to look attractive.

The soundtrack plays a big part in laying out the foundation for many of the scares and it's an essential part of the overall atmosphere of the film. It's true that loud noises are the quick road to jumpy audience reactions, the real trick is to have the audience accept it rather than have them feel cheated by a cheap scare. Wan's build-ups are near perfect, properly introducing scares, building them to considerable levels and still succeeding in surprising his audience. Of course timing is important, but the soundtrack is key in bringing it all together.

The acting overall is pretty decent, it's a shame that Patrick Wilson is not the most charismatic of all actors. He takes the lead but is easily surpassed by Byrne. A nice surprise was Lin Shaye's addition to the cast, a female horror icon who's perfect for characters that are a little off. Someone should have the nerve to offer her a lead and to go all out. As it stands now, the acting is definitely not the strongest part of the film, luckily it's not the most important part either.

In the second half of the film the tension is slightly broken by the addition of the secondary characters tagging alongside Shaye. It's a small miracle that Wan manages to introduce some lighter moments without touching the tense atmosphere found in the rest of the film. The intermissions are actually fun and entertaining, but their lightheartedness never stretches outside the borders of their respective scenes.

Strictly speaking Insidious is an extremely generic horror film. Apart from the little shift in focus halfway through there is very little that you haven't seen before. But Wan's execution is spot on, keeping away from cheap scares but building up the tension with a lot of patience and class. It would be the perfect genre flick if it had actually stayed within one single horror sub genre, but as it is the film is just heaps of fun and old-fashioned scary. Not many horror films still succeed in evoking such scares nowadays (I'm probably just spoiled), Wan definitely succeeded though.

If you love bitching about horror cliches and lack of originality, you'll have a swell time bitching about this film. But if you have a spot spot for genre films and you can accept its somewhat generic build-up, Insidious is one of the best examples in recent years. Give this film to any other director and I'm sure it would've turned out absolutely trite. Wan puts a lot of class and experience on display here, and proves his worth as a horror icon. Very enjoyable indeed.
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