The following is a reprint or our review from the Film Comment Selects program at Lincoln Center.
Maybe it was the gushing introduction by Film Comment editor Gavin Smith, or the stories we heard out of Toronto last year about audiences having their pants scared off (literally), but by the time the lights dimmed and the ooh-spooky music started up for “Saw” director James Wan‘s “Insidious,” we were ready for the best.
What we got, instead, was a cheap-o haunted house movie that starts off promisingly enough, nestling a somewhat convincing human drama at the center of all the supernatural goings-on but, as the film progresses, any chance of individuality or texture gets lost in a never-ending sea of been-there, done-that horror movie clichés. As the film wraps up, you don’t jump out of your seat as much as you let out a long, satisfying yawn.
“Insidious” concerns itself with a young couple (played by Patrick Wilson and a birdlike Rose Byrne), who move into a new house with their three little children. Almost immediately, the hallmarks of a haunted house present themselves: books are shoved off of shelves, doors creak open independently, and crackly voices can be heard over the baby monitor. Everything is presented with a complete straight face and loud, stringy jabs on the film’s unsubtle score by Joseph Bishara.
These early scenes have a certain amount of boo!-worthy effectiveness, even if the characterizations that are set up aren’t allowed to flourish (Byrne is a struggling songwriter, Wilson has an obsession with his age). Wilson, in introducing the movie, name checked “Poltergeist” as a point of inspiration. But where “Insidious” and “Poltergeist” differ is that, by the time the haunted house theatrics started to bust through in “Poltergeist,” the family had already been well defined, and their situation given a thoroughly believable texture. You could imagine these things, no matter how outlandish they were, happening down the street from your own home, to your neighbors. In “Insidious,” the supernatural stuff defines everything. And that ends up being quite drab and disappointing.
After one of the children falls into a coma-like trance, and the ghostly visitations start ramping up in intensity, the family decides to move. But, since there’s another 30 minutes left in the movie, the ghosts move with them. Just as soon as you can say “Barbara Hershey‘s in this movie?,” Barbara Hershey shows up as Wilson’s mother, who seems to have more knowledge about the situation, hiring a paranormal researcher (Lin Shaye) to exorcize the house of its very-literal demons.
This is where the greatest debt to “Poltergeist” is owed, as Shaye’s visit is preceded by a team of nerdy, “Ghost Hunters“-type investigators (one of whom is played by the film’s writer Leigh Whannell). While their appearance adds a jolt of much-needed humor, the funny stuff is kind of clumsy and errs on the side of goofy. When they call Shaye in for reinforcements, you never get the sense that they’re positively wigged out; maybe they’re just stoned?
In a fit of exposition, we learn that the comatose boy is actually capable of “astral projection,” wherein he can leave his body and zoom around the supernatural ether. “It’s not your house that’s haunted,” the spiritualist gravely intones to the fretful parents, “it’s your son!” Jeepers. The problem with this, of course, is that “astral projection,” aka “remote viewing,” was a trippy Cold War army program wherein soldiers zoned out and tried to spy on Russian missile bases half a world away. It’s hard to imagine a colonel saying, “Take a look at the Reds but stay away from those ghouls!”
Of course, in the classic tradition of haunted house movies, the father (who is similarly blessed with astral projection) goes into the great beyond (laughably dubbed “The Further”) to rescue his son, while the wife, that willowy little woman, stays home to quake uncontrollably. (“You’ve always been stronger,” she says to her schoolteacher husband before he leaves on his supernatural rescue mission. You half expect her to add: “Not like me, a girl.”)
You’d expect the movie to end with a big finish, as all matter of poorly conceived ghosties fight our hero and start bleeding through to the real world, but the whole thing is so clunky and lame – the “other side” looks a whole lot like the boring houses and sets that we’ve seen for the previous hour, except with the fog machines cranked up to 11. By the time the movie reaches it’s “twist” ending, you are as much rattled as you are exhausted. And not in a good way.
Those dubbing the film a class-act exercise in terror, as Gavin Smith did, praising its originality, probably just missed out on “Drag Me to Hell,” Sam Raimi‘s polarizing horror romp from a few years ago. That movie had real gusto and zeal, unafraid to pop out at you without the aid of 3D glasses, and with the aid of true technical mastery. “Insidious” thinks it’s incredibly scary, and some people might think it is (especially in the era of “Did that picture frame just move?” spookiness, ushered in by “Paranormal Activity“). And we’ll admit: we did jump a couple of times. But the entire enterprise, under Wan’s limp direction, feels artless, redundant and trite. If given the option, it’d probably be better to be dragged to hell than to sit through this. [C]