“What’s in that picture?”
Director: James Wan
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins
Synopsis: A family looks to prevent evil spirits from trapping their comatose child in a realm called The Further.
Apparently Leigh Whannell, the writer of Insidious, is on record as stating that while working on the script for the movie he had a list of horror movie cliches pinned to the wall above his desk so that he could be sure of avoiding writing them into his screenplay. So it’s something of a mystery why Insidious bears such a strong resemblance to Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982). Having said that, it would be unfair to write Insidious off as just another cheap horror movie rip-off because, for the first half of the movie, Whannell and director James Wan manage to create a genuinely creepy tale centred around a family which is refreshingly free of genre stereotypes. Unfortunately, the tone of the movie alters drastically with the ill-advised introduction of a comedy element and a poorly conceived finale which more or less undoes all the good work that has gone before.
While I wrote that the Lambert family are free of genre stereotypes, one aspect of their life that is common to so many Hollywood movies these days is the reverse correlation of family income to the size of their house. Pop Lambert (Patrick Wilson) works as a high school teacher while Mom Lambert (Rose Byrne) tinkles the ivories with the vague hope of becoming a songwriter. They have three young kids, and yet live in the kind of house that most of us can only dream of living in. Now, I realise that a haunted house movie would be nowhere near as effective if it took place in a two-bedroomed flat, but as the Lambert’s occupations are immaterial to the story, why not at least have Pop successfully running his own business or something?
Anyway, shortly moving into their new home, their oldest son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins) bangs his head while exploring the attic, then fails to wake up the following morning. Doctors are bamboozled, and the comatose Dalton is eventually returned home in his vegetative state. Shortly after his return, odd things begin to happen in the house: mysterious noises, malfunctioning burglar alarms, doors opening of their own accord, and strange figures lurking in the shadows. Like any right-thinking people, the Lamberts promptly up stakes and head for somewhere a little less lively, but no sooner are they installed in their new home than the poltergeists start playing up again. This sequence is by far the movie’s most effective, conjuring up genuine scares including a shadowy childlike figure who likes to dance to the creepy strains of Tiny Tim’s timeless classic Tiptoe through the Tulips.
As mum’s do, Josh’s mum (Barbara Hershey, whose face looks half the age of her hands these days) knows who they’re gonna call, and puts the frightened couple in touch with Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) who, while considerably taller than Zelda Rubinstein’s Tangina from Poltergeist, performs exactly the same function. After her hapless and mildly comical investigators, Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) find evidence of paranormal activity, Elise informs the Lamberts that it’s not the house, but little Dalton who is haunted, the result of his getting lost while astral projecting as he slept.
While Whannell’s inspiration for Insidious is undoubtedly Poltergeist, there’s plenty of evidence of other genre influences here, so it’s to his credit that, for the most part, he manages to keep things fairly fresh. It’s unusual, in these days of gore and torture-porn (for which Mr. Whannell, creator of the Saw franchise, must take his share of the blame), to see an old-fashioned haunted house story, even if it does attempt to disguise itself as a possessed child story, and it’s not an unwelcome return for a sub-genre which seemed to have played itself out a long time ago. That final act, though, in which Josh ventures into The Further, a demon-inhabited astral plane in which his son’s spirit is being held, is a major misjudgement, and has the feeling of a tacked on ending which is compounded by a pointless final twist that is clearly there purely to pave the way for a sequel that — guess what? — is due for release in 2013.