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James Wan and Leigh Whannell's “Insidious” Is a Gleefully, Scary, Silly Horror Flick

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The creators of Saw deliver a PG-13 scare fest, and it doesn’t suck.

Insidious, James Wan’s new Poltergeist rip off, is far more effective than it has any right to be. Shot on a threadbare budget, and financed independently, the film is bar none the filmmaker’s most achieved genre effort. Insidious is a flawed experience, but you’ll still watch half of it through covered eyes.

After a delightfully old school opening credits sequence (equipped with a loud Bernard Herman-esque score), Insidious plays out like any other ghost story that has graced the screen before. Family moves in. Strange things start slowly happening. Eventually chaos breaks out and someone gets possessed. The head of this family are Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) respectively. He’s an overworked teacher, she appears to be an aspiring songwriter who has abandoned that dream to play housewife. The house appears to be welcoming at first, until one of their children. Dalton (Ty Simpkins) mysteriously falls in the attic and son after slips into a mysterious coma.

Flash forward three months, and Dalton still remains a vegetable, alive but unresponsive to any treatment. He’s wired to intravenous tubes and strapped to a hospital bed in his room, where a tired Renai cares for him daily. That is when odd things start to happen.

Renai notices it first when the baby monitor for their youngest child starts registering demonic voices. Later, there is an incident involving the security alarm for the house and she catches a glimpse of someone or something by the baby’s crib. Josh avoids the situation by continuing to work late. As the ghostly appearances start to increase, a frantic Renai convinces Josh to move to an entirely new house, where the entities seem to follow the family.  This leads to a complete reassessment in strategy, including seeking advice from Josh’s mother (Barbara Hershey) who has had past experience with eradicating malevolent spirits.

James Wan and Leigh Whannell certainly have grown since they exploded onto the scene with their gritty, disturbing horror flick Saw. That will remain their most iconic film, but Insidious does show more maturation, skill and restraint. There isn’t a severed limb or reverse bear trap anywhere in sight. The film more so turns up the volume on the boo scare dial, and manages a permeating sense of creepiness throughout. Wan also incorporates a healthy dose of humor, striking just the right balance between the two elements.

Still, there are many problems. Whannell lacks creativity and an ear for dialogue. It’s hard to say whether the terrible acting is a result of that cringe worthy dialogue or misdirection by James Wan, but either way it’s a mess.  He also shamelessly cribs from classic ghost stories of Hollywood past, as well as more recent entries (Paranormal Activity). The two leads have zero chemistry but Byrne does show some hints of depth as the frantic housewife. Wilson, however, is entirely wooden, lumbering from each scene to next. Thank god Barbara Hershey had Black Swan, because she’s wasted here. Last but not least, Lynn Shaye does offer some over the top fun as an off the rocker psychic, called in during the last act to assist the family (check out the scene where she performs a séance wearing a full on gas mask).

Insidious starts to drag late midsection before finding sufficient energy to send the film off on a scary, thrilling note. The shocks and fun factor override the flaws of the overall product. Wan is no Steven Spielberg (or Tobe Hooper, or Sam Raimi), but Insidious will scare the crap out of anyone who is easily startled, while providing an unsettling, entertaining experience for more seasoned horror movie veterans.

Contact Jim Teti at jteti@philly2philly.com