Insidious: James Wan’s Horror Film, Starring Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson

When the creators of the post-modern horror movie genre join forces, you either relish the fact or suspect that maybe the collaboration was based on a need to do something slightly different, to reninvent the form.  This is not an easy task due to the saturation of horror flicks in the market place over the past decade or so.

It’s therefore a relief to report that the joining of forces of the makers of the franchises “Saw” and “Paranormal Activity” has resulted in a scary picture, aptly titled “Insidious.”

It also might explian why the movie, which in moments is truly frightening and quite thrilling, lacks a unified narrative strategy and visual style.

World-premiering at the 2010 Toronto Film Fest (in the Midnight Madness section), “Insidious” is released by Film District on April 1.

Born in Malaysia, James Wan grew up in Australia, where he went to school.  After making several music videos and short films, Wan burst into the international movie scene in 2004 with “Saw.”  His later efforts, the companion pieces, “Dead Silence” and “Death Sentence,” both in 2007, were less successful in the U.S.

In “Insidious,” Wan reteams with the writer-actor Leigh Whannell of “Saw” fame, and this time their aim is higher than just making a bloody or gory flick.  They set their tale in the uncanny unknown of the spritiual realm (some of you may find this pretentious, but the movie is not).

Evoking the set-up (and technical plateau) of “Poltergeist,” which was produced by Spielberg in 1982, the family tale centers on two amiable and ordinary parents, Renai and Josh (credibly played by Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson), as they move their clan of two small children into an old creaky house. (Are there any other houses in horror movies?)

Shortly thereafter, their youngest son Dalton suffers from what appears to be an accident, when he lapses into coma. His devoted mom tends to his needs as best as she can.

Then, suddenly the couple begins to witness all kinds of bizarre happenins: there are late-night disruptions and sights of shadowy apparitions.  Unfortunately, instead of bringing the couple togther, these mysterious occurrences  have negative effects on them and their relationship begins to fracture.

Two additional characters make the tale more interesting, when they join the housegold of restless spirits and malevolent creatures.  Barbara Hershey (who recenlt made an impression as the monstrous-hysterical mom of Natalie Portman’s ballerina in “Black Swan”) plays Loraine, Josh’s mother; inevitably, Hershey’s appearance here evoks her work  in “The Entity,” in which she also battles supernatural forces).




The other character, a paranormal medium played by Lin Shayne, who is accompanied by assistants, offer some needed comic relief, which is evident from their first appearance, wearing outdated phantom-detection gear.




Wan employs all the devices that by now are overfamiliar, ominous sounds, swinging doors, brief apparitions from the dark corners of the house.  But he does it raesonably well: Some of the shocks are both emotional and intimate.




Obviously, Wan, Whannell and the producers want to go beyond the real-estate spookiness of such movies as “Poltergesit” and “Amityville.”  They wish to ground their film in the broader tradition of more honroable films, such as “Carnival of Lost Souls.”




Like most horror films, “Insidious” begins well, and the first two reels deliver the expected fears, scares, and frights. Family-oriented viewers might feel empathy for the parents who are overly concerned with the life of their youngest child.




“Insidious” starts to lose its grip and suspense, when the filmmmakers feel a need to explain and rationalize, which occurs in the final, verbose, nonsensical reel, a let down.




Too bad that the movie increasingly relies on special effects—I found it much scarier and frightening early on, when the horror was more grounded in a semi-recognizable reality and less generated by modernist technology.