“Insidious,” which has scared up the best business of any horror movie this year, is made by people who still love the genre. Although it comes from folks who also brought us the “Paranormal Activity” and “Saw” films, this isn’t a cynical money grab, but rather the first strong horror flick of 2011.
Similar to 2009’s “Drag Me to Hell,” “Insidious” falls halfway between slick new-school and bare-bones old-school. Director James Wan and his team use current visual effects technology, but they also are tapped into what has made horror films work for decades. Although they don’t break new ground, they seem to take pride in a scare well done.
“Insidious” starts off like hundreds of other genre films: Husband and wife Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) move into their new house, which is also an old house. It has beautiful wood floors and railings, but it’s also creaky enough that Renai has to delicately tip-toe down the stairs so as not to wake the snoring Josh. They have three young children; one of the boys explores the attic, and the next morning, he simply doesn’t wake up, although he’s otherwise perfectly healthy.
The filmmakers show skill in all the key areas of horror filmmaking: the old-school score that’s played spookily off-key on violins and perhaps strips of sheet metal; indecipherable whispers coming from the baby monitor; shadows moving past a balcony window; and creepily out-of-context usage of an old song (“Tiptoe through the Tulips”) that hearkens back to “X-Files” episodes that used the same trick.
Although Josh is the skeptic to Renai’s believer, he’s not annoyingly ignorant of the signs of a haunting. In a pleasant surprise — one that shows these characters actually might have seen a horror flick — they wisely move into a different — and presumably unhaunted — house.
Now granted, they do bring their spooky-as-hell grandfather clock along. And they position their old rocking horse behind a door so you have to peek around the corner to see if it’s rocking on its own or if there’s a ghost sitting on it. And, if you’ve seen the trailer (or even the poster) that spoils the twist, you know switching houses won’t be the solution to their problem.
The final act lets loose with the scares and monsters in such a volume that it’s not really scary anymore, but up to that point, “Insidious” certainly is scary, and I appreciated the breather. Also providing a welcome touch of comic relief are paranormal investigators Specs and Tucker, who bicker about who has the more important job.
People who don’t like to be scared at the cinema might want to see “Soul Surfer” or “Prom” instead (heck, there were certain scary moments where I was thinking of switching theaters myself), but if you enjoy the genre, you gotta see “Insidious.”
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