"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

DVD of the Week: Insidious

Every so often a low budget horror film comes out and against all odds strikes a chord with mainstream audiences to become a breakout success. This happened with Halloween (1978), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and Paranormal Activity (2007). These films were interested in nothing more than playing on our most basic, primal fears and scaring the crap out of us. The latest horror film to do this is Insidious (2010), a modestly budgeted ($1.5 million) effort from the folks that brought us Saw (2004) and Paranormal Activity. It has gone on to become a bonafide commercial hit ($87 million). More importantly, it flies in the face of the gore-obsessed torture porn sub-genre to deliver good ol’ fashion things-that-go-bump-in-the-night scares that audiences are clearly hungry for. This is even more impressive when you consider that the two men who are the creative driving force behind Insidious are also responsible for the Saw franchise.

The Lambert family has recently moved into their new home and is in the process of unpacking and getting acclimatized to their new surroundings. Josh (Patrick Wilson), the father, is a busy high school teacher, which leaves Renai (Rose Byrne), the mother, at home to unpack and take care of their baby girl. Unusual little things start to happen, like a door moving on its own. While exploring the attic, one the Lambert boys, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), encounters something. He falls and hits his head causing a nasty bump.

The next morning, Josh tries to wake the boy and finds him in a coma. A doctor tells him and Renai that there is no detectable brain damage and he can’t explain what has happened to their child. Three months later and Dalton is still in a coma but he’s allowed to be at home with his mother taking care of him. One day, Renai hears a strange voice on the baby monitor and rushes up to investigate but of course nothing is there but her child. Soon more weird things happen: a loud knocking on the front door, the image of a strange woman appears in the baby’s bedroom window, the once locked front door is now wide open, and so on.

These things put all kinds of stress on the Lamberts and they decide that their house must be haunted so they move to another place but strange things continue to happen which leads them to contact Elise Reiner (Lin Shaye), a friend of Josh’s mother (Barbara Hershey) who is an expert in paranormal activity. She tells them that it isn’t the house that is haunted – it is their child, Dalton. The frequency and intensity of the scares gradually increases as the true nature of what ails Dalton is revealed and Elise gives the Lamberts the lowdown on what’s happening.

Director James Wan is very effective at establishing an unsettling mood right from the film’s spooky prologue. Taking a page out of the film’s producer, Oren Peli’s book (Paranormal Activity), he employs all sorts of tried and true jolts: doors slamming shut on their own, inhuman shadows, mischievous ghosts, and so on. The visuals are enhanced with a creepy soundscape complete with moody sound effects and an atmospheric score by Joseph Bishara. Known for gory films like Saw and Death Sentence (2007), Wan demonstrates refreshing restraint with Insidious.

Wan and long-time screenwriting partner Leigh Whannell have created a compelling and efficient scare engine that plays on some of our simplest fears – that someone close to us is in a dangerous situation that we don’t understand. Insidious doesn’t try to reinvent the demonic possession film but instead mashes it up with the haunted house sub-genre and a side order of astral projection thrown in for good measure. The end result is an entertaining film that resides somewhere between the flashy style of Drag Me to Hell (2009) and the unsettling, white knuckle scare tactics of Paranormal Activity with engaging characters that you grow to care about over time.

Special Features:

“Horror 101: The Exclusive Seminar” features director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell talking about how they first came up with the notion of astral projection, which they hadn’t seen much in film and place it in a haunted house setting. Whannell wanted to make sure that the audience got to know and identify with the Lambert family so that they would care about what happens to them later on. He and Wan come across as intelligent and eloquent with a good knowledge of the horror genre and its conventions.

“On Set with Insidious” takes a look at the making of the film with plenty of on set footage as we see Wan working with the cast and crew. We see how one of the film’s stunts is performed and an alternate take of a scene. This extra provides some nice insights into filming.

Insidious Entities” takes a look at the ghosts and demons that appear in the film. Wan and Whannell talk about their distinctive look and where the inspiration for some of them came from and why.



  1. I have this one in the queue and can't wait to check it out, J.D. Your fine review only adds to that anticipation, my friend. Thanks.

  2. I quite enjoyed this in theaters and will definitely be checking it out on DVD. I don't know if I'll buy it based on the extras that are on it, but I'm itching to watch it again.

  3. Hi J.D.

    A great write-up of what sounds like a very good horror film. I have read several good things about the film, but as always, your opinion carries a lot of weight with me.

    I'm looking forward to seeing this one soon. Thanks for posting a great review.

    John Kenneth Muir

  4. Nice write-up. J.D.. I really enjoyed INSIDIOUS when I saw it in theaters. I'm a little leery about revisiting it, though - I'd hate to discover on a second viewing that it ain't all that. But my intial impression was that Wan and Whannell had delivered something special.

  5. le0pard13:

    I think you will dig this film. It is quite well made and delivers the requisite thrills and chills, IMO.


    The DVD extras are fine but nothing to write home about. The compliment the film nicely, I'd say.

    John Kenneth Muir:

    Thanks for the kind words, my friend. I am very curious to read your thoughts on this one when you finally get the chance. As always, I thoroughly enjoy reading your reviews.

    Jeff Allard:

    Thank you! Yeah, I'm curious to see if this film holds up to repeated viewings. It certainly dazzled me the first time around.

  6. Nice review! Just watched this, and it was really good!