I asked my buddy Chad to see a movie with me a while ago–or perhaps it was the other way around–and one of us mentioned Insidious. I remember Chad saying we should avoid it because what good horror movie comes out in April of all months? See, I was half on board with that idea when I saw two names in the credits: Leigh Whannell and James Wan. Those of you who know your horror should recognize those names–they’re the screenwriter/director team who brought you the very first Saw. And Saw, I like to remind people, is not a gory movie. These guys have understood from the get-go that horror isn’t about showing you images that disgust you. It’s about drawing the tension to the point where the only thing it can do is snap–and then snapping it as many times as you can before you wear the audience out. And in this respect, James Wan and Leigh Whannell are very, very good. Granted, they’re no M. Night Shyamalan, but until he remembers he’s better at suspense than he is at anything else, I guess the dudes who brought us Saw will have to do.
Insidious is also a tough movie to review as it has plenty of twists and plenty of turns and at least one weird as hell third act. However, my job’s sort of been done for me by the poster already. If you’re seeing this movie now, I guess you know that it isn’t the house that’s haunted, it’s that creepy looking kid. So good luck with the first hour of the movie when everyone’s figuring that out for the first time. What you might not know going in is that the kid is in a coma when the haunting happens. So good luck not seeing that one coming, either! It’s okay, Insidious works whether or not you know these things going in, but it doesn’t work as well as it could. And that’s my biggest issue with this movie: the marketing department sucks. Sure, the movie has a lot of other issues that could be improved–the script needs tightening, the acting needs a boost across the board and several things needed to be pruned for believability–but overall, screw the guys who made the poster.
Still not talking about this movie, (I thought of like, five openings to this review, you guys) I sat down to watch Insidious alone in the theater. Seeing a movie utterly alone is simultaneously blissful and plain awful. Blissful cos there’s no one to talk, but awful because there’s no one to amplify the movies emotions off the screen. However, just as the lights went down, a group of about 10 teenagers walked in and sat directly in front of me. One of them even said to another, “you sit there, you’re short, you won’t block the view of the guy behind us”. I settled in for a long movie where these hooligans wouldn’t stop talking. But Insidious is better than that. It’s the kind of movie that may be a bit slow to boil, but it grabbed the attention of all of those kids. The best parts being when I’d plug my ears in anticipation of a jumpscare and the girl in front of me to my right would let out a gigantic scream. As would the short girl in front of me. The guys played like they were hard when the credits started rolling, but I saw them jump.
I guess it’s good to know that there are still horror movies that are all about suspense and jumpscares. I realize jumpscares–where there’s a big orchestral sting and something pops out from behind something else–are kind of easy to do right. But while they’re easy to do right, they’re impossibly hard to do well and consistently. Sure, you say “that’s not true, you always get startled”. But how many horror movies have you been utterly turned off of because they just became annoying? Expecting you to jump every time they said boo? There’s a way to make jumpscares into legitimately scary events: build the suspense around them. Insidious does this with an expert’s precision. I feel no shame in telling you I watched a significant part of this movie with my ears plugged, looking at the back of the seat in front of me. I feel no shame in being afraid, because being afraid is exactly what Insidious wanted me to be, and in that measure it succeeded.
However… this movie is not good at quite a few things. For instance, acting. I like Rose Byrne and I like Patrick Wilson–I like them both as actors, having seen them in other stuff. Patrick Wilson is a decent actor, best demonstrated in Little Children and Hard Candy–the movies themselves are take them or leave, but his performances in both are fantastic. Rose Byrne, I’ve seen less of, but she held her own in Knowing and Sunshine–both movies that likely left her with too few emotional attachments to get much mileage out of them. They’re both fine actors, but I think the problem here is indifferent direction. James Wan seems more concerned with finding the right timing on his scare chords and the right creepy in his visuals than he is with letting the actors breathe life into their parts. This isn’t really a bad thing–it makes the third act, with requisite screaming and fighting, all the more visceral–but it does make the slow sections of the movie seem… well, downright goofy.
At the end of the day, if you’re the kind of person looking to be scared in a movie theater, go ahead and see Insidious. It’s a decent movie from the guys who made Saw, though it doesn’t have that movie’s smarts. It also has a much larger budget and room for polish. It’s scary as all get out when it gets to the point, but when Specs and Tucker show up, you’re honestly on your own. THREE STARS