Horror fans rejoice: finally, a film about possession that will leave you with more than just abject disappointment.
James Wan, instigator of the infamous “Saw” series, sets his sights a little higher in “Insidious,” a film which very consciously harkens back to some of the great horror tropes of the 1970s and 80s: demonic children, haunted houses, and intimations of the Beyond (in this film it’s called “the Further”). Part “Poltergeist” and part “Exorcist,” what sets “Insidious” apart from not only the recent spate of vapid possession flicks (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “The Last Exorcism,” “The Rite”) but from horror film tradition at large is its concentration on a male child as the victim of possession, and a father as the agent of his salvation.
The film opens on Renai (Rose Byrne), an aspiring musician and young mother of three settling into a new house in a tony suburb. Her husband Josh (Patrick Wilson) is a schoolteacher, and they lead a hectic but happy family life—though not for long, of course. Soon Renai is plagued by mysterious voices during her long days home alone with the baby, and objects start to fall off shelves of their own accord. Then, after a tumble off a ladder in the shadowy attic, Renai and Josh’s oldest son, Dalton, fails to wake up the next morning. He has fallen into a strange, undiagnosable coma.
As the couple searches for answers Renai’s encounters become more and more terrifying, until she finally convinces Josh that they have to leave the house. But unlike “The Amityville Horror” or “Poltergeist,” the problem in “Insidious” isn’t in the house, but in the child. Having exhausted medicine and religion as possible solutions, Renai turns to (you guessed it) an old woman who acts as a medium between this world and the next—I mean, the Further. Josh turns out to be the only one who can save his son, who has wandered into some sort of existential Purgatory and is being pursued by evil spirits. The ending is too entertaining to spoil, but suffice it to say that things are left tantalizingly unresolved.
Wan’s touch is deft, neither abrupt nor predictable; he incorporates the inherent campiness of the genre seamlessly into this effectively spooky film, knowing just when to ramp up and when to relieve tension. Byrne and Wilson are believable in their roles (though Byrne looks far too well-kempt for a mother of three) and Lin Shaye, as the medium, and Barbara Hershey as Josh’s mother bring a seriousness to their roles that keeps the narrative from tipping into the absurd.
For someone who dreamed up the torture-porn orgy that the “Saw” franchise has become, Wan’s visual effects in this film are surprisingly innovative, even restrained at times. At one point, autonomous flashbulbs signal the presence of unseen malevolent spirits, recalling the barrels that indicated the approaching shark in “Jaws.” The evil spirits themselves are, as usual, less scary when we finally see them than when they remain an intimation hovering just out of frame, but they’re perfectly serviceable. It’s a credit to Wan that the appearances of the ghouls themselves don’t make or break the rest of the film.
Recalling “The Shining,” “Insidious” also relies heavily on its soundscape to create an atmosphere of menace, something that Joseph Bishara’s score accomplishes with aplomb. His heavy use of strings recalls not just Kubrick’s favored composers (Georgi Ligeti above all) but even Bernard Hermann. It’s impossible not to think of “Psycho” when those violins are being sawed at.
Overall, Wan is to be commended for his effort to update the haunted house genre and for stepping outside the glut of degradation films (some admittedly of his own making) that enjoy inexplicable popularity these days. Far from feeling dated or overly nostalgic, “Insidious” is pleasantly reminiscent of many of the best horror films of the past 40 years, but remains firmly anchored in the 21st century. It’s a welcome addition to the canon and, hopefully, the first in a long line of non-“Saw” films for Wan and company.
“Insidious” is available on DVD from Netflix.