SXSW FILM FESTIVAL
SXSW Review: James Wan's New Horror 'Insidious' is Scary as Hell
by Jeremy Kirk
March 14, 2011
There's the old Alfred Hitchcock adage about building suspense by showing the audience a bomb rather than having a bomb blast from out of nowhere. But there's the more recent thought from horror master John Carpenter who believes jump scares can work if implemented correctly. Effectively placed and creepily executed, they can build the same level of tension that comes from showing the audience the bomb. This is something James Wan & Leigh Whannell exercise in their new ghost movie Insidious, the belief that blasting at the audience rather than slow burning them can have a lasting effect that lingers long after the credits roll. It works.
Insidious is scary as hell, a blend of loud stings of music, waves of monstrous leaps at the audience, and incredibly effective suspense built all around it.
Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne play Josh and Renai, parents of three who find their newly moved-in house to be a bit on the bumpy in the night side. They don't react the way typical movie couples in such a situation react. As soon as it becomes evident things are not quite right in their happy home, they move out. Unfortunately, the ghosties follow suit, and the couple must uncover why they are being terrorized by these evil spirits.
Whannell and Wan have a history in the horror community. Their 2004 Saw spawned a franchise and genre movement, and 2007's Dead Silence is a creepily effective ghost story that pulls few punches when it comes to graphic imagery. Few punches are pulled with Insidious as well, but it's not in the gory details of a ghost attack's aftermath. It's in the faces in the windows. The creepy figures who move throughout a darkened room. The shadowy form standing in a corner reaching its sharpened claws out towards their eldest son who has inexplicably fallen into a coma. It's in Joseph Bishara's amplified score that puts the exclamation point on just about every scare in the movie.
Some would consider this cheap, that the film's scares wouldn't work if not for the startling explosions in sound. Not the case. The imagery Wan incorporates into the film is just as terrifying whether watched at full volume or coasting on mute. And like any good ghost story that aims to scare, the blasts of visual horror hit hard and hit often. This is hardly a steady build to bigger moments a la Paranormal Activity, though that film's writer/director Oren Peli serves as executive producer here. There are a few early moments in Insidious that include the typical books falling off shelves or doors opening and closing by themselves, but the entities found here quickly cast these acts of timid aggression aside for things more nefarious.
The scares might not quite work if not for the believability of the film's main characters. Wilson and Byrne cast an honesty about these characters and their relationship, the love they have for their children though the middle son seems to disappear into the ether of cinematic forgetfulness early on. Lin Shaye as a Tangina-esque medium who could help the family with their apparition problem is solid. Barbara Hershey as Wilson's mother with some expository information about his past is fine, as well. Whannell turns up along with Angus Sampson as Shaye's underlings, an almost forced comedic duo who seem to have watched too many episodes of Ghost Hunters.
Insidious' cast and scares work wonderfully up until a point, that is. Insidious' third act delves into a more fantastical realm where the ghosts and more dangerous creations roam free. It ends up going into a more-is-less direction where the entities' ambiguity and the way Wan works his camera around them fleetingly falls away to having everything right there on screen for you. The design on the ghosts is incredibly creepy, though seeing too much of them, particularly in the CG-heavy climax, has a tendency to blunt some of the ensuing scares.
The build is certainly there, though. Not a slow build, mind you, but a succession of continual scares that offer just as much visual terror as it does audible hits. In the end, the terrifying highs all but make up for any issues the rest of the film might have. Whannell and Wan came from a mindset of scaring their audience, and that is precisely what they have done. Carpenter was right. Jump scares can be just as effective in unnerving the viewer at hand. It's a belief Insidious toys with to near perfect results.
Jeremy's SXSW Rating: 8 out of 10