James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence, Death Sentence), who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite genre filmmakers, is a hard-core horror classicist without a sentimental bone in his body. Nothing good has ever happened to any of the characters in any of the three films he has made with his screenwriting partner Leigh Whanell. His pitch-black sensibility doesn’t, however, translate into the grimy miserabilism of, e.g., Marcus Nispel, or the smirking gorehound pandering of the Saw sequels. Instead, Wan’s post-Saw efforts are stately and handsome, infusing old-fashioned pulp with elegant stylistic flourishes (he favors elaborate tracking shots and forceful color palettes) and an abiding love of horror tropes.
I essentially knew that I would love Wan’s Insidious after the brief, jolting cold open was followed by the blaring title card, drenched in flickering blood-red light and accompanied by screaming orchestral strings. This is not a timid film. It is a ghost story in the tradition of The Haunting and (surprisingly) Poltergeist, made by people who know how to craft scares that resonate deep in your gut. Though it is rated PG-13 and lacks gory violence, nudity and cuss words, Insidious is the most intense horror film since The Descent. The Prom Night remake this ain’t.
The movie hits the gas early and barely lets up. The first notes are familiar: aspiring musician Renai (Rose Byrne), her schoolteacher husband Josh (Patrick Wilson), and their three children move into a beautiful old house. Strange things start happening – things are mysteriously moved around the house; figures seem to appear in the shadows; one of the kids, 8 year-old Dalton, has a panic attack in the attic. Then, Dalton suddenly falls into a coma and won’t come out. The strange goings-on in the house don’t abate; to the contrary, they drive Renai to despair and the family moves out – only to have the disturbances follow them. Something is certainly being haunted, but it’s not the house.
Jump scares are routinely dismissed as cheap even by horror fans, but Insidious elevates them to high art, or at least masterly craft. The “boo” moments here are brutally effective; the film played me like a piano. What’s more, there isn’t a single false alarm – no waylaid cats or clattering silverware. This is no trifle aimed at undiscerning teenagers on a slow weekend. It is ruthlessly calculated to scare the bejeezus out of you.
Wan and Whanell pay attention to the little things. No one will accuse Insidious of being a character piece, but Josh and Renai register as a real married couple, as well as real parents of real kids. Wan amplifies his style to make the film look majestic, almost regal; there’s a recurring shot of a red-lit, smoky hallway dotted with candelabras that looks like it came from some sort of bizarro collaboration between David Lynch and Roger Corman. Individual images are so supremely creepy that Wan must have spent ages fine-tuning them. Lin Shaye deserves an Oscar nomination for her totally committed turn as a kindly, fearless medium.
The climax of Insidious suddenly veers toward fantasy in ways I won’t reveal, and will divide audiences. Admittedly, the story does eventually come to seem a bit half-baked. But like the rest of the film, the direction of the third act is wonderfully old-fashioned – something like a horror version of Labyrinth – without seeming even a little retro. I maybe could have done without the final ironic twist, but I can’t deny that the movie left me shaken in the best possible way, and giddy with delight. Insidious is a gift to horrorphiles everywhere.