“A picture’s worth a thousand words.”
James Wan first came to national attention when a short film that he made set the stage for one of the most successful horror franchises in recent years. That short, of course, was Saw, and after no less than 6 sequels that franchise appears to be over, at least for now. Wan has teamed with the writer that also helped to bring about the original Saw film, Leigh Whannell, to try and turn the horror world on its head once again. But, lightning just doesn’t strike the same place twice, or does it?
“Words are worth a thousand words, too.”
Insidious begins very much like the Paranormal Activity films without the amateur camera footage. We meet Josh (Wilson) and Renai (Byrne) Lambert and their young son Dalton (Simpkins). They’ve just moved into their dream house, which we already guessed is going to be more like a nightmare. Things go bump in the night, and there are a lot of unexplained noises and visions. It is Renai who is seeing and hearing these things and it is literally driving her insane. Here’s where the Paranormal Activity similarities come to an end. For the first time in haunted house film history, the family decides that enough is enough and they get out fast. Usually we don’t get that outcome because that would pretty much be the end of the story, right? Not with Insidious. We’ve just finished the first act.
The Lamberts have moved into a more modest house, but at least they have escaped the horror they experienced before, or have they? The visions and noises begin almost immediately. Perhaps it wasn’t the house at all. It’s time to call in the obligatory team of ghostbusters. Josh’s mom is a believer,and her friend Elise (Shaye) leads just such a team. Steven (Whannell) is the acadamian in the group,and Tucker (Sampson) is the technician who has built his own ghostbusting devices. Elise tells the family that the house isn’t haunted, but it’s their son Dalton who is being haunted. It seems Dalton is a skilled astral projection traveler and has wondered into a place called The Further. Now his empty body is attracting all sorts of evil entities that hope to posses it and live once again. Only a family secret revealed can offer Dalton any chance of returning to his body before something else takes over.
“It’s not that hard if you know what you’re doing.”
You can run, but you just can’t hide. I’ve searched my memory for a horror film that plays out quite like this one does, and I can’t recall anything remotely like it at all. It seems easy for James Wan and Leigh Whannell, however. Once again they’ve tapped into something rather remarkable in the field. At first you really do think that you’ve seen this before. But there are enough twists and turns until suddenly this wasn’t the kind of movie you thought you were watching after all. Okay, maybe it was, but it’s not any more. What’s more, there isn’t anything terribly complicated about Insidious. It’s so simple, actually, that I’m sure there are a ton of filmmakers out there who are asking themselves: “Why didn’t I think of that?”
The casting is just as effective as everything else in this film. Patrick Wilson does a great job as the one who has the hardest time believing any of this. Yet, at some point he has to take the lead in order to save his son. It’s an underplayed performance that fits perfectly with that of Rose Byrne who is the one on the verge of hysterics. They have nice chemistry here. You have to also spread a lot of love for young Ty Simpkins who plays young Dalton. He gets very little to do at first because his character is in a coma. But when he has to bring it, the kid brings it all. Lin Shaye is almost as creepy as the creatures. Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson provide the little bit of comic relief in the film as the ghostbuster guys.
With Insidious you get three films in one. The first third is really a typical haunted house movie. It has all of the trappings you’d expect from the genre. There are loud mysterious noises and plenty of shadowy creatures that offer fleeting glimpses of their horrid natures. Then we venture into something akin to possession. The creatures are somewhat Lovecraft in design and origin. I have to believe that Whannell was inspired at least somewhat by the works of Lovecraft. We get the expected séance, but even that has a rather bizarre twist. The Elise character wears an old-style gas mask hooked up to an earpiece so that another member of the team can translate what she says. It’s a simple thing, but I can’t tell you how much creepier it makes the whole procedure. The final act is the least effective. Here things get a little campy and aren’t near as frightening. I’m not sure if it was intended as a relief from the scares or just a rare misfire from these guys. The actors appear to be a little lost here as well. But don’t worry, because the film will bring the chills right back in the final moments of the film. If you haven’t seen this one yet, you haven’t been scared in a long long time. Sounds to me like you’re overdue for a chill check-up and Doctors Wan and Whannell just so happened to have an opening.
Insidious is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 26 mbps. There are two levels to this high-definition transfer. The background really doesn’t come out with a ton of sharpness and detail. I’m sure there is something quite intentional here, because the foreground is remarkably sharp complete with wonderful texture and detail. The daylight moments look pretty natural with bright colors and excellent fleshtones. The dark moments are quite cold and desaturated. Fortunately, there is great shadow definition so that you get just enough of a look at the creatures that you’re left with an indelible impression each time. Wan knows how to use shadows, and this presentation carefully preserves his style.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is more than you could ever want from a horror movie. Sounds can come from anywhere, and these are rather disturbing sounds, to be sure. Your sub provides just the right abbreviated punch when called upon to literally lift you out of your seat at times. Of course, the dialog is fine, but Wan populates his sound design with mysterious whispers and disturbing ambients. There is a wonderful otherworldly nature to the piece at times that really is unsettling. The score rushes in when necessary and is capable of large sweeping momentum while knowing just when to lay low and build toward the money moments.
Sony has begun to do something a little disturbing with their menus. The upper right corner is dominated with changing ads for other releases courtesy of your BDLive connection. Unfortunately, BDLive has turned more into a commercial environment than the bountiful supplemental material we were all promised.
All of the extras are in HD.
Horror 101 – The Exclusive Seminar: (10:27) Wan and Whannell take us through the guidepost moments of the film and share the evolution of the story.
On Set With Insidious: (8:15) Brief and rather light look behind the scenes. You’ll get to see a couple of things here that did not make it into the final film.
Insidious Entities: (6:32) A closer look at the creatures and ghosts of the film.
Here’s the thing. When was the last time that a horror movie was scary? I don’t mean one that grossed you out or made you a little jumpy. I mean when was the last time a film sent those creepy little goosebumps up your spine and left a lump in your stomach? If you’re having trouble answering that question, don’t be alarmed. You are not suffering the early signs of memory loss. You can’t remember because it’s been decades since that’s been true. James Wan and Leigh Whannell have reminded us that a true horror movie has to be scary first. Everything else is bells and whistles. Yes, Insidious is clever. Yes, it delivers some rather sweet horror images. Yes, there is a pretty solid cast. All of those things are true and would cause me to rate the film high on those merits alone. But the real icing on the cake here is that Insidious has real chills and scares. There are no fake jump scenes to be found. When you jump, it’s for real. It won’t be the cat jumping through the window or the mailman standing just outside the door. These creeps are for keeps. “It’s all very relevant, actually.”