Made on the cheap (as far as Hollywood budgets go, anyway) with a $1.5 million production budget, James Wan’s “Insidious” has lived up to its title. Like certain reality TV “stars” on the E! Channel, the film has refused to die or go away, and has now grossed just south of $50 million worldwide and seems poised to either reach, or at least near the $100 million mark by the time all receipts are counted. Not bad for a film shot in 2010 and that was sitting on the shelves for a while, before positive word of mouth from the film’s many festival showings finally convinced some bright studio fellow to give it a semi-respectable theatrical release. The film now stands as the most profitable movie, in terms of return-on-investment, of 2011 as of this review. How you like them apples?
Essentially a haunted house movie that could have been made without any real stars, “Insidious” nevertheless boasts up-and-comers in fellow cinematic superheroes Patrick Wilson (Nite Owl from “Watchmen”) and Rose Byrne (Moira McTaggert from “X-Men: First Class”) as a married couple with three children. As the film opens, the family is in good spirits, having just moved to a new house that, like most new/old houses, has plenty of creak, moody corners, and, oh yeah, wandering ghostly spirits. But hey, those things just gives it character, right? For a bit, yeah, but not so much after oldest child Dalton (Ty Simpkins) finds himself being haunted by strange apparitions and slips into a coma that mystifies doctors. As menacing occurrences mount, wife Renai (Byrne) implores her teacher husband Josh (Wilson) to move.
Which they do. Alas, the happenings return even before the family’s moving boxes have been completely unpacked at their new place. What’s a desperate family to do? Renai seeks help from Josh’s mother (Barbara Hershey, no stranger to domicile hauntings herself, having endured plenty of it in her own evil spirits flick “The Entity” back in the ’80s). Realizing that something evil (and familiar) is afoot, mom contacts Elise (Lin Shaye), a psychic who arrives with two geeky ghosthunters, Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (the film’s co-writer Leigh Whannell). After some resistance from Josh (he is a teacher, after all, and would rather not indulge in supernatural explanations, thank you very much), Elise quickly exposes the culprit behind the hauntings, but knowing the cause and restoring order are entirely two different things. Someone best bring out the funky gas mask!
You can’t buy a whole lot of groovy special effects with $1.5 million or throw ridiculous amounts of gore at the screen using all manner of outlandish torture machines. In many ways, “Insidious” is the antithesis of creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s infamous “Saw” franchise, the still-churning horror series that the duo brought forth onto an unsuspecting world 8 years earlier. Only they can tell you why they’ve decided to go the low-tech route post-“Saw”, but perhaps they were looking to test themselves, see if they can do more with less. “Insidious'” reputation as an old-fashioned horror movie is definitely well-deserved, but those who need a healthy dose of slick CGI with their practical effects need not bother. Glitzy special effects just aren’t in the budget.
While it’s an overall effective horror movie with plenty of chills and thrills and creepy ass kids doing creepy things, “Insidious” is not without its limitations. The film is almost entirely set inside and around the Lambert’s home, with the production simply re-dressing the house for various fantasy sequences. This usually means an appearance by the fog machine, which gets quite the work-out, so hopefully they bought in bulk. Mind you, this is all very creative, but it’s amusing to see the same living room and hallway so many times over and over again throughout the movie. James Wan certainly works overtime behind the camera, using a variety of creative camera angles and appear-and-disappear slight-of-hand filmmaking to pull off the fright scenes. Give them credit, these simple tricks work pretty well.
“Insidious” doesn’t really rely on its cast to carry the day, but of course it doesn’t hurt to have genre veterans like Lin Shaye, whose introduction turns the whole affair amazingly electric. The pretty Rose Byrne has a lot to do in the early goings, but is relegated mostly to sitting on the couch waiting with bated breath for answers in the second half. Patrick Wilson’s Josh has more to do past the halfway point, though I’ll be honest with you, I kept waiting for him to suit up as Nite Owl and karate kick some ghosts in the face while the whole thing is shot in ridiculous slow-motion. Overall, “Insidious” is a pleasant excursion into old-school horror moviemaking. If you’re feeling run down by the “Nightmare on Elm Streets” and yes, even the “Saws” of the world, “Insidious” is the perfect vehicle to rejuvenate the horror taste buds.
James Wan (director) / Leigh Whannell (screenplay)
CAST: Patrick Wilson … Josh Lambert
Rose Byrne … Renai Lambert
Ty Simpkins … Dalton Lambert
Andrew Astor … Foster Lambert
Lin Shaye … Elise Rainier
Leigh Whannell … Specs
Angus Sampson … Tucker
Barbara Hershey … Lorraine Lambert