Fright Time

'Insidious' takes the tired, old haunted-house plot device and makes it scary again

I dread anything from director James Wan.

This is the guy who gave us the original Saw, one of the most overrated horror films of the last two decades, which led to many terrible sequels. Because of something Wan and his writing pal Leigh Whannell thought up, I've had to endure one lousy Saw film after another, every Halloween. Those bastards!

Wan has gone on to make other films since that first, not-altogether-terrible Jigsaw adventure. (It's the sequels that have gone into the toxic realm.) His Dead Silence, involving murderous ventriloquist dummies, was a true bomb. I did find something to appreciate in his devilish Death Sentence, a psycho revenge movie starring Kevin Bacon. I didn't like it enough to forgive the whole Saw thing, though.

Insidious, his latest directorial effort, was written by Saw co-writer Whannell, and is a new take on the old haunted-house tale: A family moves into a new house, and things start to go bump in the night. Here we go again, right?

Lo and behold, Wan has made something truly chilling. There were many moments during this movie when I wanted to get the hell out of the theater ... for the right reasons: Yes, Insidious had me freaking out. This is easily the best thing Wan has put to film.

Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne are quite good as Josh and Renai Lambert, a husband and wife attempting to settle in to a new home. Josh is a schoolteacher fretting about grading papers, with wrinkles on his face and the occasional gray hair. Renai is a wannabe songwriter whose aspirations have been sidelined after having three children. Neither is miserable, but they are definitely sweating their imperfections.

This makes them just a little unreliable when they must face a true family crisis. Dalton (Ty Simpkins), one of their sons, has fallen into some kind of strange sleep for months, and he shows no signs of waking up. In the meantime, strange noises and unwanted visitors begin haunting Renai.

Credit Wan for making those noises and visitors absolutely terrifying. The baby-monitor gimmick is used to jarring effect; ghostly characters stroll through hallways, peer through windows and, in one hilariously scary instance, dance frantically to a novelty song.

Wan has that gift for telegraphing his scares, yet still making them bone-chilling. There were moments when I knew something scary was coming—and more often than not, the payoff made my blood feel like crushed ice.

The movie was reportedly made for a paltry $1.5 million. This is an incredible feat. I would've guessed the budget was at least 10, perhaps 20 times that. The movie looks terrific, utilizing old-school makeup and lighting for most of its scare effects. Wan doesn't cheat with computers.

Of course, not everything works. The film loses a bit of its momentum in the final act, and some of the intentionally scary stuff comes off as a little goofy. Still, when the film hits the mark, you and those around you at the theater will be audibly frightened. (This was one of the loudest screenings I've ever attended, and the theater was only a quarter full.)

Wan unabashedly rips off Poltergeist, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Lin Shaye (a Farrelly brother favorite from films such as Kingpin and There's Something About Mary) shows up as Elise, a clairvoyant who informs the family that the haunting involves astral-projection and another dimension called "The Further." While some might see her dialogue as a bunch of hooey, I actually found it to be a nice twist. Her two paranormal assistants provide some decent comedic moments.

Wilson and Byrne help make the film dramatically acceptable beyond the scares. Their characters are slightly annoying as they insist upon staying put in a house that is clearly screwed up. However, as the film proceeds, they become worth rooting for as they take measures to save their child and keep malevolent spirits out of their dining room.

Oren Peli, who directed Paranormal Activity, had a hand in producing Insidious. Perhaps that's one of the reasons the film was successfully made for such little money. Insidious is a movie that could truly throw a lot of current big-budget films into a state of flux: "Hey, Wan made his movie look like that for less than $2 million? Consider yourself downsized! Get a smaller trailer, and fire the caterer!"

I am no longer mad at James Wan for spawning the atrocity that is the Saw franchise. Now I'm mad at him because I'm a grown man who has to sleep with the lights on for the next couple of weeks.

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