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Since the wide theatrical release of the original Saw director James Wan and writer by Leigh Whannell have been sitting on the fence of mediocrity, threatening to fall off into something genuinely great at any minute. Saw isn’t exactly the best film (on some levels it’s downright terrible), but the concept is clever, and Wan showed huge promise as a stylist. There aren’t many filmmakers that come out of the gate with so much heat ( Saw became a massive money maker), and unfortunately even fewer that can live up to early expectations (just ask Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez), so all horror fan eyes sat with anticipation on this young duo. Whilst paying the rent producing increasingly popular Saw sequels Wan and Whannell made Dead Silence, which in opposition to the Saw based expectations featured little gore, and utilized abstract colour, rather than grim, practically monochromatic photography. It was a different take on a similar formula (urban legend, puppets, cop thriller, ironic punishment), and in many ways the more accomplished movie. Unsurprisingly it was not well received, and made very little money. Wan broke the partnership briefly the same year to direct the Kevin Bacon revenge flick Death Sentence (a sort of sequel/remake of Death Wish, based loosely on Brian Garfield’s novel), which was better received, but an even bigger box office disappointment. A few years later Whannell and Wan regrouped with another shot at a goreless, low-key supernatural thriller, this time with an even smaller budget ($1.5 million instead of $20 million), and even more to prove.

Insidious
Insidious (a name I cannot claim as anything but dumb) follows Renai and Josh Lambert (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson), a pretty young couple who move into their dream house with their family, including adorable son Dalton (Ty Simpkins), and two other kids no one cares about. Shortly thereafter Dalton is injured in a fall, and lapses into a coma. Renai and Josh’s marriage shows signs of strain under the pressure of a comatose child, and threatens to fall apart when strange events convince Renai the new home is haunted. Josh does the right thing and moves his family to a slightly less amazing dream house, but the ghostly events don’t stop, and the couple is forced to employ the advice of experts.

Wan creates a tense atmosphere mixing the very modern hyperrealist styles with classic spook film motifs, much like he did with [/I]Dead Silence[/I]. Insidious isn’t entirely comparable to mockumentary/found footage horror films, but deals in some of the same cinema verite cinematography, especially during the less stylized first two thirds of the film. For the young, punk-haired director behind the hyperactive, gory visuals of Saw, I am consistently taken aback with his subtle and still compositions – simple set-ups that tell entire stories without dialogue, and minimal camera movement. The last act is more in line with what I expect out of Wan, especially given his lighting choices on Dead Silence (I have not actually seen Death Sentence, so I can’t really compare its visual choices here). This section is pretty impressive, but the further Wan wanders into Sam Raimi territory, the goofier, and unintentionally funny the visuals become. Films like Evil Dead and Drag Me To Hell work so beautifully because they are either consistently bizarre and energetic, or at least build up to the weird shit. When Wan drops this particular ball on us it feels more like a betrayal than a surprise. I get the feeling that there are two movies I like somewhere in here – an effectively chilly haunted house melodrama, and a wacky, spook-a-blast horror comedy – but when these movies are smashed together the effect is less than ideal.

Insidious
Whannell’s script is derivative, though usually in the respectful way the best homage is derivative. You aren’t likely to recall plot points after seeing the film, but you are likely to recognize them, which is Whannell’s clever (I’m assuming) way of building upon our already established fears. All good horror stories do this. I’m not entirely sure Whannell is a good enough writer to earn this benefit of the doubt, but I’ll give it too him. Snatched tropes include childhood illness ( The Exorcist, Haunting in Connecticut), psychic investigators ( Poltergeist, The Entity), marital strife ( Poltergeist again, Amityville Horror), photo bombing ghosts (everything ever) and a skeptical male protagonist ( Poltergeist yet again, Drag Me To Hell). Whannell also addresses some of the more outdated tropes, though in a less comedic manner than other postmodern horror films like Scream. The house is haunted? Okay, let’s move! Nerdy psychic investigators come into the house? Turns out one of them is a douche bag of Comic Book Guy proportions (I’d like to know more about these guys, actually, and their View Master ghost hunting technology). So the ideas are there, and the concepts are relatively clever, but the characters are weak, and the plot meanders without any real purpose or arc. The troubled third act, despite being more of a visual feast, and relatively entertaining on its own, comes out of nowhere, and has no real basis in, or bearing on the rest of the story. The fact that we’re given no real stakes or geography during these scenes certainly doesn’t help. Oddly enough, the shock coda works for both films.

Insidious

Video


Dead Silence worked mostly due to the Mario Bava inspired candy colour palette, which pushed the relatively unremarkable film into entertaining realms. Insidious is kind of the opposite. Most of the colour has been sucked out of the film, and set to nearly black and white, but thanks to digital grading Wan is able to spike certain hues, usually reds, and make sure they pop sharply against the otherwise dull palette. The Dead Silence-like gels utilized towards the end of the film are generally match the overall tonal value set by the desaturated scenes. The reddened scenes look the most impressive. Detail levels are extremely sharp, which becomes extremely important during those patented extremely dark sequences. The itty-bitty key lights ensure we can make out dark figures and menacing shadows. Given the relatively flat contrast levels I imagine standard definition releases will look a bit like black backgrounds set against grey blurs (some of the flashbacks are set almost entirely in black and white without any midtones, but this is for contrast, and not the norm for the transfer). The even, subtle gradation of the contrast doesn’t hurt detail levels on the more brightly lit sequences either. There isn’t a whole lot of fine texture, or even particularly complex backgrounds, but there is a lifelike crispness to every frame. I’m going to chalk this one up to the power of the RED camera system, which Wan has utilized quite well to create production values where there aren’t many (I’m guessing the cameras, renting the house, and paying the actors was at least 90% of the budget).

Audio


Insidious is, like all successful modern ghost stories and haunted house movies, depends largely on its soundtrack for laying the foundation of each scare. Subtle effects ramp up the tension so that the louder stabs hit with the full impact of the system’s capabilities. You can actually feel the jump scares in your chest. Other films have utilized stereo and surround channels to their spooky benefit a little more effectively, but the sound design team takes plenty of cues from the classics, and is wise to keep many of its supernatural effects based in practical noises (creaking wood and slamming doors, instead of Ghostbusters-like synthetic sound). The musical soundtrack is very loud when required, which is basically every time Wan wants us to poop our pants. The séance sequence is the moment this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is given a real chance to shine, moving from almost complete silence, to rushing high strings, and blasting flash bulbs from different channels, finally culminating in the a more abstract deep bass throb.

Insidious

Extras


The extras here are brief, but not without merit. ‘Horror 101: The Exclusive Seminar’ (10:30, HD) is a behind the scenes featurette with Whannell and Wan discussing their inspirations (haunted house films, possession films) and intensions for the film, their disapproval of false jump scares, and how they intended the film to be a distinct three act structure. It’s an interesting discussion, but it also points to some of the film’s greater weaknesses, and over-explains a lot. ‘On Set with Insidious’ (8:20, HD) is a bunch of raw, fly on the wall footage, that is put in to context by the writer and director. It’s an endearing look at the amusing behind the scenes process of a dead serious movie. I especially enjoyed the footage of Wan calming Ty Simpkins about the scarier elements. ‘Insidious Entities’ (6:30, HD) finishes things out with a look at the ghost and demon designs, and character back-stories (which is unnecessary).

Insidious

Overall


I’m neither enamored with, nor resentful towards Insidious, a film that for whatever reason appears to really polarize audiences. I agree its strengths are worthy of praise, but I was not personally as riveted as the more adamant supporters. I also agree its weaknesses are worthy of note, but don’t find the mismatched acts as experience ruining as the more adamant naysayers. This isn’t an entirely successful film, or one worth buying without seeing it first in order to properly gage one’s own tolerance for its dueling elements, but it’s certainly worth a look for fans of haunted house and ghost stories. This Blu-ray release looks positively impeccable thanks to the high quality digital photography and an impressive 1080p transfer. The DTS-HD MA soundtrack also hits the right notes, and begs to be listened to at devastatingly high volume levels. The extras are brief, but relatively informative.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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