'Insidious': Shivery Fun
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Seven "Saw" years ago, a couple of Aussie film school grads, director James Wan and co-writer Leigh Whannell, conjured up a tasty little horror show that proved once again that imagination and raw talent beat no-budget constraints every time. Not surprisingly, when that ur-"Saw" broke the bank, it spawned a franchise that grew increasingly baroque and repetitive, straining to attach tongue ever more firmly to cheek.
Re-teamed for "Insidious," the original "Saw" men go old-school, largely eschewing Saint Vitus' Dance camerawork, jack-in-the-box fright tricks and elaborate orgies of gore. The first third of their new film builds legitimate haunted-house dread, generating some nasty jump-out-of-your-skin scares. Fueled by smart sampling -- "Poltergeist," "The Shining," "Paranormal Activity," "The Amityville Horror," "The Exorcist" -- it feels like the Wan/Whannell brand of shivery fun may be heading toward something substantially terrifying.
However, at a very specific point, this persuasive tale of demonic possession turns jokey and hokey, as if the filmmakers had suddenly lost faith in the genre's power to breed killer nightmares. That faith is later restored in spades -- during a chilling foray into a Kubrickian hell, "Shining"-style -- but "Insidious" never entirely recovers its footing.
The creepy credit sequence comes in blood-red script laid over black-and-white snapshots of empty rooms and hallways in a lovely but spooky Victorian-style home -- new digs for a likable young couple raising three children. Off-key strings lacerate the nerve endings as, through nocturnal dimness, we glimpse ghostly footprints, bogeyman shadows and silhouettes, like stains of toxic mold. A witch's bone-white face gazes back at us, her look of flat, malevolent appetite reprising Jigsaw's marionette mask.
(Credit "Paranormal Activity" -- director Oren Peli co-produced "Insidious" -- with this disquieting strategy, making ordinary spaces go all haunted-house-weird while unsuspecting folk sleep. This is in direct line of descent from '40s, low-budget producer Val Lewton, a pioneer in the art of irradiating mundane locations with shifting shadows and discordant sounds until they metamorphose into zones of terror; see the swimming-pool scene in "Cat People.")
As for the Victorian's new occupants, all is not marital bliss. Renai (Rose Byrne) is frustrated because being a stay-at-home mother of three pretty much shuts down her songwriting aspirations. Teacher husband Josh (Patrick Wilson), though apparently loving when he's home, has lately taken to working nights at school. The couple's emotional issues are exacerbated when oldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) takes a bad fall in an attic space thick with menace, then lapses into a months-long coma. The terrible and inexplicable loss of this beloved child haunts the house as much as creaking floorboards, screechy door hinges and poltergeist-y mischief. But then the haunting ratchets up, climaxing when a bloody handprint -- tipped with claws -- appears on Dalton's sheet.
Josh and Renai decide to do something that never seems to occur to horror-movie homeowners: They get out of Dodge. Trouble is, once settled into their new place, it's soon clear that the haunts aren't housebound -- they're hot for comatose Dalton. As Renai is taking out the garbage one day, she suddenly hears Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" start up on her record player, sounding like some smeary vocal from a corpse's decomposing throat. Through the window, she perceives the silhouette of a strange boy dressed in outdated clothes and grooving, all sloppy-limbed, to Tim's tune. It's one of those Wan-Whannell, less-is-more moments of sheer existential wrongness, guaranteed to raise every one of the short hairs.
It's at this juncture that "Insidious" derails. Josh's mother (Barbara Hershey, only a tad less neurotically on edge than she was in "Black Swan") advises calling in paranormal expert Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye, weirdly good). Trailing common sense and can-do cheer like pastel scarves, this unlikely ghostbuster looks as if she's on hiatus from a family sitcom that co-stars Zelda Rubinstein. The supernatural spell "Insidious" has cast loses force as Elise's two white-shirted techies (one of them Whannell) indulge in geek comedy and the exorcist herself stops the movie for a lengthy, nuts-and-bolts explanation of what's afoot. It seems there's this lightless underworld called "the Further," home to bad souls hungry for new bodies, where a fire-faced demon (think Darth Maul) holds Dalton's astral-projected spirit captive. And someone has to astral-project in there to rescue him.
There are still scares to come, but the black magic's gone. And that's a shame, because James Wan's an able manipulator of cinematic space, framing and composing for maximum meaning and insidious threat. In his movie's penultimate moments, when he taps into the soul-deep horror of "The Shining," this talented "thief" hits pay dirt ... but with a price. The homage makes you recall, in your very bones, how masterfully Stanley Kubrick hosted his haunted hotel, where the banality of evil played out forever, never to be franchised.
Kathleen Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool.") She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kathleen's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.