‘Saw’ Creators Fall Just Short of True Scares With ‘Insidious’

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CHICAGO – I have written over a thousand reviews and have rarely been as conflicted as I am about my response to James Wan’s “Insidious.” It comes down to this question — do you judge the effort or the execution? I love what Wan and co-writer Leigh Whannell (the team behind “Saw,” working this time with the producers of “Paranormal Activity”) are attempting with their unique ghost story, one that clearly pays homage to an old-fashioned style of horror filmmaking, but I don’t think they quite pull it off. Ultimately, a movie doesn’t exist in theory, only up on the screen, and that’s where “Insidious” doesn’t quite work as well as this classic horror fan truly wished it would.

At its best, “Insidious” has echoes of “Poltergeist” or the original “The Haunting,” the kind of movies they don’t really make any more as horror has become all about last-minute twists, excessive gore, or ludicrous special effects. “Insidious” was shot entirely on-set and with enemies that are clearly sharing the same space as the protagonists, not created via CGI or green screen. Recognizing that an open door with a screeching alarm or a shadowy figure crossing a balcony are much scarier than anything that can be created on an iMac is a lesson that should be learned by more horror movie producers. To that end, I love what James Wan is going for with “Insidious.”

Photo credit: Film District

But “going for” and “accomplishing” are two different things. The problem with “Insidious” is that Wan doesn’t have the skill for atmosphere of a Robert Wise or Tobe Hooper and haunted house movies are ALL about atmosphere. And, while I won’t spoil anything here, the film takes a sharp turn as it tries to become “something more” than just an average ghost story and it simply gets away from Whannell and Wan. “Insidious” actually would have worked best without twists or attempts at unique takes on the well-worn genre. The fact is that we haven’t seen an excellent old-fashioned American ghost story in quite some time and “Insidious” could have been that movie without the bells and whistles of the final act. At its foundation, it’s a movie I like. It’s what’s built on that foundation that’s troubling.

The foundation I speak of is a basic “haunted family” story. Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) move into a new home with their two young boys. One goes to play in the attic where he hears a disturbing sound and takes a fall. The next night, he goes to bed and doesn’t wake up. He’s not dead and not in a normal coma. In fact, doctors can’t figure out what the heck is wrong with him. He just won’t wake up. But increasingly unusual events around the home, including shadowy figures and even a bloody claw mark on her son’s bed convince Renai that there’s more going on with her child than a medical problem.

Photo credit: Film District

On the other hand, Josh tries to avoid the problems at home, which is a neat way to leave Renai alone in a big scary house. Things get so bad that the family even moves despite Josh’s skepticism, but the problems not only follow them but seem to increase in intensity. A psychic (Lin Shaye) is brought in with a pair of comic-relief ghost hunters (Angus Sampson and Whannell) and the truth behind their son’s condition is revealed along with a nice bit of family history from Josh’s mother (Barbara Hershey) and clever usage of Tiny Tim’s music, one of the most terrifying things in the history of man.

With unknowns instead of Wilson and Byrne and a streamlined script, “Insidious” could have worked. It also would have helped to have a director more attuned to atmosphere than jump cuts. Wan does stage one fantastic scene, a totally bizarre seance involving a gas mask that provides the film’s most memorable moments, but he can’t maintain a consistent tone. The film swings wildly from over-the-top to melodramatic to even comedic with Whannell and his buddy ghost buster. How seriously are we supposed to take this? Is it supposed to be tongue-in-cheek? None of it feels grounded enough to be truly scary. When you’re stuck asking questions about a filmmaker’s intentions instead of being sucked into the story, a horror movie can’t possibly work.

Despite my best efforts to love “Insidious” in the way I want to love a throwback ghost movie in 2011, I just can’t bring myself to do it. It’s not scary enough and not memorable enough to stand next to the films that inspired it in the first place.

“Insidious” stars Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, and Barbara Hershey. It was written by Whannell and directed by James Wan. It is rated PG-13 and runs 101 minutes. It opens on April 1st, 2011.

If you like “Insidious,” LOVEFiLM recommends the brilliant “Paranormal Activity,” which is available today on LOVEFiLM. Sign up with the site now to rent classic and new movies all from the comfort of your own home.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

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