The spooking – Insidious review

Insidious – Starring Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson and Lin Shaye. Directed by James Wan. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

The success of Paranormal Activity really did revitalise the horror genre. First of all, it proved that you don’t need a big budget to craft an incredibly intense and genuinely enjoyable film experience. How could Hollywood continue to justify their unscary onslaught of toothless remakes and less and less profitable torture pornos? PA director Oren Peli – with just $15,000, a couple of craigslist sourced actors and a single camera stationed on a tripod – spooked audiences to the tune of $193 million worldwide. James Wan’s Insidious (produced by Peli) will also be able to claim similar returns. Made for only $1.5 million, it’s already grossed more than 30 times its production budget.

I know, I know, the financial triumph of a film has no place in a review of its quality. But when it comes to Peli’s productions, it’s worth addressing. Paranormal Activity also proved that a movie  should never be critiqued according to its budget; if we were going to applaud an ultra-cheap film for being able to compete – both in terms of quality and monetary success – with the big boys, then we could no longer give them a free pass for their failings. Paranormal Activity wasn’t “good for a $15,000 movie”; it was just plain good (great, really). Insidious however – despite having some fun tricks up its sleeve and a few genuinely scary scenes – is just a bit too silly to take seriously, and too grim to call fun. The problem is not that the film looks cheaply made (because it doesn’t); it’s that the direction is so joyless, and Leigh Whannel’s script too often betrays its characters. This is not the rollicking rollercoaster frightfest Paranormal Activity 1 and 2 were, nor is it a playful genre throwback like Drag Me To Hell, or even a touching family film like Poltergeist (which Insidious apes most). There is no such thing as “good for $1.5 million” movies; there is only “movies” and Insidious isn’t a very good one.

Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson (excellent actors elevating the material) star as married couple Renai and Josh; mother and father to Dalton (Ty Simpkins), Foster (Andrew Astor) and a baby that probably had a name, but I can’t remember it being mentioned, and can’t find it listed on IMDB (we film reviewers are human too!). Renai has been having a hard time of late – references to postpartum depression are alluded to yet never explicitly mentioned – so she’s quit her job, and the family has moved house to shake things up a bit. Dalton ventures into the attic and sees … something; something that sends him into a mysterious coma.  Three months of inaction later, Josh and Renai bring their comatose son back from the hospital and set him up in his bedroom. Almost immediately, they begin to witness some ghostly goings on in their manor. At first they’re subtle, but eventually they evolve into full blown “specter walking round the house” type hauntings. I’ll give Renai and Josh credit; unlike so many before them, when the terror gets real (blood on the bed sheets, alarms going off) they move out immediately. The horror follows them to their new house however, and Josh’s mother (Barbara Hershey) suggests they call in paranormal expert Elise (Lin Shaye) and her two associates Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) for an explanation.

Although the premise is actually rather novel – and the eventual explanation of the source of the scariness is certainly unique –  the execution is severely lacking. Wan, best known for directing Saw and establishing the series’ visual style, takes as inspiration not the fast motion torture sequences from his directorial debut, but rather the first Saw’s best scene: Adam (also Whannell) tentatively wandering around a darkened apartment, using the flash of his camera to intermittently light his way. Wan plays with darkness often and effectively. He sets up intriguing sequences, builds our tension … and then squanders it. Scenes end abruptly – not scarily, abruptly – leaving us to scratch our heads over what we’ve just witnessed. Perhaps the blame should be equally distributed to Whannell, who allows characters to disappear for long stretches of time without explanation (Foster and the unnamed baby are literally absent for the film’s final 45 minutes, which merely proves they are plot devices). Even Byrne, who is established as the film’s anchor in the first act, is completely dismissed in the finale. She is given absolutely nothing to do except look concerned. Also, the comic-relief double act of Tucker and Specs seems so out of place in the unrelenting bleakness of the scenario established here (although the Recovery reunion was welcome).

2.5/5

Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Insidious arrives in Australian cinemas May 12, 2011.

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