A version of this review originally ran as part of our coverage of South By Southwest 2011.
Jump scares are like horror movie fast food: cheap, easy, and incredibly artificial. They satisfy you, but they also leave you feeling kind of guilty for indulging too. But not all jump scares — or fast food — are created equal. I would argue that the ones in “Insidious” are the In-N-Out Burger of jump scares: still fast food but fresher, juicier, and more skillfully prepared than a meal at a lesser chain (or, say, your run of the mill “Friday the 13th” sequel). It’s not exactly good for you, but hey — once in a while we all deserve a delicious treat.
“Insidious” begins like a haunted house story in the classic mold. A wholesome American family moves in to a beautiful new home: father Josh (Patrick Wilson), mother Renai (Rose Byrne), and three adorable kids. When their oldest, Dalton (Ty Simpkins) investigates his new attic you know he’s in for some trouble because the place is spooky and dark and you have to climb a precarious half-broken ladder just to turn on the light switch. Sure enough, little Dalton falls and smacks his noggin; when he comes to he sees… something. The next morning Josh can’t wake Dalton up. There’s nothing physically wrong with him, he’s just in this mysterious, unexplainable coma. And that’s when Josh and Renai start seeing things themselves. Doors open on their own. Threatening voices crackle through the family baby monitor. Footsteps pound through the house where no one’s around. Before you can say “Dude, just go to a motel already,” we’ve got a full-on haunting on our hands. To make matters worse, Josh and Renai’s marriage wasn’t all that smooth to begin with. You try opening up the lines of communication with your distant spouse while being hounded by the lost souls of eternal damnation. Not easy.
This makes an ideal set-up for director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, the creators of the “Saw” franchise and guys who know a thing or two about putting characters (not to mention audiences) through the ringer. Here they prove themselves to be masters of building tension out of literatlly nothing — scenes of total silence and stillness are absolutely horrifying because we as viewers interpret them as the precursors to doom. Stepping outside myself for a moment during one of the several intensely scary sequences, I found myself wondering: does a horror director have to be a bit of a sadist to be good at his job? You have to kind of enjoy effing with people. And by extension, does that make a horror movie fan a masochist?
A question for another time. “Saw” has a bad reputation as the film that inspired the so-called “torture porn” movement, but the first film was a lot less gruesome and a lot more morally interesting than the bloodthirsty sequels that followed (and which Wan and Whannell had less to do with). These guys are smart, talented filmmakers and their work has a precision to it; the dominant visual motif of “Insidious” is the image of a grandfather clock which ominously ticks away the seconds until the next ghost attack but also represents the film’s tightly wound plot mechanics. Wan and Whannell use jump scares, but not “cheap” jump scares, and by that I mean the moments in bad horror films that aren’t intrinsically scary at all but are made scary through the use of loud music or jittery editing. For example: a young woman is waiting for her best friend to pick her up from school. It’s dark and she’s alone. Suddenly — SHRIEK! on the soundtrack — someone’s behind her! Oh but it’s just her friend, there to pick her up. For some reason, she decided to sneak up behind our heroine and surprise her. What a bud.
There’s no cheating like that in “Insidious.” Josh and Renai have good reason to be scared of the things they find in that house. I sure was. Wan even finds a thematic reason for the loud, jarring music on the soundtrack, atonal piano banging that mirrors Renai’s frustration that she can’t seem to rekindle her career as a pianist thanks to her distracted husband and those pesky ghosts in her attic.
This is a solid horror movie. It is creepy as hell. I figured out the big twists and the ending before the characters did, but I know what I’m getting ahead of time at In-N-Out too. Doesn’t mean I don’t love the burger.