We gave it a B+
How did Insidious (2011, PG-13, 1 hr., 42 mins.) become a springtime sleeper hit, grossing $53 million off a $1.5 million budget? Credit the film’s democratic mix of horror tones. A collaboration between the creators of Paranormal Activity and Saw, Insidious straddles the line between the former’s suggestive freakiness and the latter’s gory extravagance. There’s a scare for everyone.
The setup is simple: A family moves into a new house. Spooky things start happening. Mom (Rose Byrne) hears an unknown gravelly voice on the baby monitor. Dad (Patrick Wilson) is tormented by strange visions. One of their children falls into a coma. A stringy-haired witchy woman in black occasionally appears outside the window. Conclusion: The place is haunted. So the family moves into another new home. That’s when things really get weird. And even more terrifying.
It’s easy to explain the appeal of haunted-house flicks. As director James Wan says in a bonus featurette, ”We all live in a space that is our sanctuary, our fortress. The concept that you cannot control it is scary.” Movies have been mining this primal fear for decades, from the Gothic manors of House on Haunted Hill (1959) and The Haunting (1963) to the everyday middle-class household of The Amityville Horror (1979). The Steven Spielberg-produced Poltergeist (1982) pushed the genre into surprisingly incisive satire. The delirious climax argues that the entire suburban ideal is built on a continent-size Indian burial ground. Which, by extension, makes America one big haunted house. Now, that‘s a chilling concept.
Insidious doesn’t dig as deeply into the emotional terrors of domesticity (and bloody U.S. history) as some of its predecessors did. It’s just out to scare you. And wow, does it ever. The film features a veritable parade of nightmarish ghouls, including a dancing boy in newsie attire and a lipstick-faced demon (played by Joseph Bishara, who also composed the screechy score). Just wait till you see what Wilson has to endure to try to save his son from a bleak netherworld. The climactic séance, in which a scene-stealing Lin Shaye communicates with the spirit world while wearing a WWII-era gas mask, is a cover-your-eyes delight. There aren’t too many EXTRAS, but in one of the behind-the-scenes videos, a group of background actors in full ghost makeup do a ”Thriller”-esque dance. It’s as funny as the movie is horrifying. B+