Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2011

The haunting in suburbia

James Wan shows huge directorial strides in eerie, unsettling 'Insidious'

Director: James Wan
Screenplay: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson and Barbara Hershey
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 43 minutes
(out of four)

When a film announces itself as being "from the creators of Saw," well, you'll forgive me if my expectations are more than a little tempered. So you can imagine my surprise when director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell answered my skepticism with a real, grown-up horror movie built on mood and imagery instead of another childish exercise in gimmickry.

Insidious is an old-fashioned haunted-house flick that understands, as all good horror movies do, that the less we see, the better it is. Whatever spirit or ghost or ghoul or monster is plaguing our characters, no matter how scary, is inevitably less so the more we see of it. It can't haunt the screen if it's constantly in front of it.

Wan understands that - this time, at least - and spends most of his energy building an atmosphere of dread rather than bombarding us with images. But in times when a visual is required, boy, he makes sure it lands perfectly.

It's not just that Wan delivers moments of striking imagery - it's more that he has a calculated sense of how those images play with us, and how they change how we look at (and within) the frame. He gives us brief and jarring glimpses of faces, figures, personages . . . but obscures them with other objects - a curtain, a shelf, a window frame, even another person. Or he pushes it off into the corner of the room frame.

Often the image is so brief, we can't be totally sure of what we saw, or thought we saw. This allows Wan to play with the mise en scène in such a way that conjures and suggests things that may not be there at all. In a dimly lit room, a strange shape glances across the wall from a doorway - that sort of thing. Certain shots reminded me of those moments in childhood when the shadows cast by the leaves outside our window looked like something far more sinister.

The atmospheric bravura intensifies a rather routine story about a family moving into a new house, and the child afflicted (possessed?) by the forces that haunt it. The dynamic is the same as it usually is in the genre - the mom, Renai (Rose Byrne), is at home (Alone! In a scary house!) raising three children, while her husband Josh (Patrick Wilson), works as a teacher. Not long after they get settled in the new house, their oldest, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), falls into a sudden and unexplained coma.

Just as unexplained are the figures that begin to haunt Renai's day-to-day life - the small child hovering over the record player, the man pacing loudly outside her door - all of whom seem to want something from Dalton. Renai is, naturally, the only one who's ever around for any of this. Her husband works late, as husbands in these movies always do, and he's skeptical, as husbands in these movies always are. ("The little lady is just being hysterical!")

Wan is rather shameless in the way he inundates us with creaking doors, loud banging noises and overbearing musical cues - especially since so many of those are just false alarms. But he's also developed a sense of humor; contrary to the inexplicable self-seriousness of Saw, this movie is lightened by some semblance of wit.

As the film progresses - particularly once the film gets everyone on board with what's really going on, from Josh and Renai, to Josh's mother (Barbara Hershey), to a pair of quirky paranormal investigators (Whannell and Angus Sampson), to the medium (Lin Shaye) brought in to lead poor Dalton out of the valley of darkness - it becomes less a pure horror movie and more of a funhouse movie, albeit with Satanic overtones.

For parts of the film, particularly the third act, it seems more like a revamped "Haunted Mansion" attraction at Disneyland than a movie, but I suspect that's an intentional effect. This is a low-budget film, and it takes advantage of that fact. And while Wan and Whannell telegraph their plot secrets early on, and their "gotcha" epilogue doesn't work (if only because it seems far too inevitable, to the point of cheapness), I must say I'm impressed with a lot of what they've done here. If Insidious is any indication, they've graduated from being tone-deaf shock artists, and become actual filmmakers.

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