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Overall Rating

Awesome: 11.11%
Worth A Look47.22%
Average: 36.11%
Pretty Bad: 2.78%
Total Crap: 2.78%

3 reviews, 18 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Spirits In The Night"
4 stars

For most moviegoers, just the commercials for the new horror movie “Insidious” will be enough to send jolts of pure, blood-curdling fear shooting down their spines. No, nothing especially terrifying from the film itself is on display but it does reveal itself to be the combined brainchild of the people responsible for both the “Saw” and “Paranormal Activity” franchises, two of the most artistically bankrupt (though financially remunerative) examples of contemporary genre filmmaking imaginable. And yet, despite the fact that its pedigree alone may be enough to scare off more discerning viewers, they should instead face those fears because despite all odds, the film is actually a fairly effective and engaging spook story that relies more on solid storytelling and the carefully building of atmosphere to draw audiences in instead of subjecting them to another loathsome collection of severed limbs, extended torture sequences and unlikable and utterly one-dimensional characters. The end result won’t go down as an all-time classic anytime soon but it is a solidly constructed effort that will appeal to those not normally predisposed to horror while still satisfying those who are with some nifty scare sequences and plot twists, though the distributors have strangely gone out of their way to ruin the latter by including one of the most significant and surprising story developments in all the far-to-revealing commercials.

The film commences in the grand tradition of so many others of this particular type as a nice, normal nuclear family is moving into their new home. These poor-bastards-to-be are the Lamberts--slightly befuddled paterfamilias Josh (Patrick Wilson), vaguely dissatisfied mom Renai (Rose Byrne) and three kids of varying degrees of adorableness--and their new home is a lovely and roomy affair topped off by an attic so dark and foreboding that they could make some extra cash on the side by renting it out to film crews shooting low-budget horror movies. At first, everything seems fine--oh sure, some books are mysteriously knocked to the ground and a box containing amateur songwriter Renai’s sheet music mysteriously disappears and reappears--but the real trouble begins when eldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) is lured up into the attic and takes a tumble off of a broken ladder. He seems fine but when morning comes around, he cannot wake up and while it appears in theory that he is in a coma, the doctors cannot find anything medically wrong with him that would be causing it. When the story picks up three months later, the still-comatose Dalton has just come home from the hospital, Josh is spending as much time away from home as possible to avoid dealing with everything and Renai is at her wits end. It is at this point that a series of mysterious and spooky occurrences commence that start with weird noises on the baby monitor that almost sound like voices to ghostly figures suddenly appearing in otherwise dark and empty rooms to bloody handprints appearing on Dalton’s sheets.

At this point, the Lamberts demonstrate that they have actually seen a haunted house movie or two and do the one thing that never seems to occur to the characters in those films--they move out of their apparently haunted house into a new and presumably spook-free abode. Unfortunately, they have hardly begun to unpack when the spooky stuff begins anew and more aggressively than before--there are more ghostly apparitions than ever and even more frighteningly, they enjoy freaking people out by playing scratchy recordings of Tiny Tim’s immortal rendition of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” At this point, Josh’s mother (Barbara Hershey) mentions that she has an old friend who might be able to help out, the friendly and genial Elise (Lin Shaye), a psychic-type who arrives with two fellow paranormal investigators (who seem to have learned everything they know about the business from watching “Ghostbusters”) to scope out the family and the house. It doesn’t take Elise very long to determine that something is very wrong and while I wouldn’t dream of suggesting what that might be, I will offer up but two casual observations. For one thing, if your mother just happens to have an “old friend” with experience in dealing with the paranormal, that would be a good time to start getting worried. For another, if that “old friend” comes up to you and says “You’ve grown since I last saw you,” that would be a really good time to start getting worried.

“Insidious” was written by Leigh Whannell (who also turns up as one of Elise’s goofball assistants) and directed by James Wan, the Australian duo who made an immediate impact upon the horror genre back in 2004 with the release of their first collaboration, “Saw.” Although that film was more of a cop thriller in the vein of “Seven” than a straightforward horror item, the subsequent sequels (which they had practically nothing to do with--Whannell worked on the screenplays for parts II and III) quickly devolved into a series of deeply unpleasant and increasingly confusing craptaculars in which extended sequences of unimaginable gore and brutality were strung together almost at random until it was time to run the end credits. Perhaps in response to the way that the horror genre tilted towards so-called “torture porn” in the wake of those films and their imitators, they have conceived “Insidious” as a relatively blood-free exercise in which creepy atmospherics and a slowly building sense of tension and dread are deployed instead of unrelenting gore and sadism. In essence, the film is a loving homage to such classics of the genre as “The Haunting” and (especially) “Poltergeist” and throughout the film, you can see them having fun by deploying little shout-outs to the genre ranging from the knowing deployment of generic tropes (such as bringing in a rocking horse only so that there can be a shot of it rocking despite no one appearing to be near it) to specific in-jokes like casting Barbara Hershey, who memorably battled a demon of her own nearly 30 years ago in the underrated classic “The Entity,” in the role of the mother of someone else being haunted by things from the other side. In the last few weeks, I have been grumbling a little bit about films like “Paul” and “Sucker Punch” that try so hard to shove in as many pop-culture references into their running times as they can that they wind up causing the basic story to suffer as a result. “Insidious,” on the other hand, is a good example of maintaining the correct balance between straightforward storytelling and paying homage to one’s cinematic forefathers--there are plenty of in-jokes that hardcore horror fans will no doubt enjoy but Whannell and Wan never let them dominate the proceedings and as a result, even those without a strong working knowledge in films of this type will still be able to enjoy it without feeling as though they need to consult IMDB every three minutes or so.

That said, “Insidious” is a success as much for what it has in store for viewers as it is for what it doesn’t. While Whannell’s screenplay does owe quite a bit to “Poltergeist,” it is otherwise a fairly strong effort that manages to nicely blend scenes of fear and grim anticipation with the occasional lighter moments that manage to inspire laughs without destroying the mood. Some reviews have criticized the left-hand turn that the story takes in the final act and while I will admit that this is the weakest segment of the film--mostly because the mystery is always more interesting than the explanation for the mystery--I did appreciate the effort to give viewers something new and, unlike Whannell and Wan’s previous collaborations, it manages to get the film across the finish line in decent shape. As for Wan, he does a very good job of building tension without resorting to gallons of gore or cheap shock tactics that other horror filmmakers typically deploy to momentarily jolt viewers. This isn’t to say that Wan is completely above using the occasional “BOO!” moment but he wisely keeps them to a minimum and as a result, they wind up having a far stronger effect than if he filled the film with them a la the “Paranormal Activity” movies. “Insidious” also benefits from an unusually strong cast of actors who, with the exception of the aforementioned Hershey, are not the kind of performers who usually turn up in low-budget horror movies nowadays. Instead of condescending to the material, they all approach it as seriously as they would any other movie and while their performances probably won’t be factoring in any year-end award derbies, they are all strong and sure and help to further sell the story--of the bunch, Lin Shaye, that mainstay of the films of the Farrelly brothers and New Line Pictures, essentially steals the show with her off-beat performance as the merry-faced paranormal expert.

Look, “Insidious” is not a great movie by any means nor is it a great horror movie--it has a few clunky moments here and there and no matter how many times it is explained, the motivations behind the malevolent spirits still come across as a bit too muddled. At the same time, the horror genre has fallen on such hard times in the last few years thanks to a seemingly unending slate of pointless remakes, needless sequels and draggy retreads that a film containing even the slightest hints of creativity and ingenuity are going to stand out among the surrounding dreck. “Insidious” contains more than enough of those hints to satisfy fans of the genre and has been made so skillfully that even those not normally disposed to such things may well find it an engrossing night at the movies as well.

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originally posted: 04/01/11 14:00:00
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Trilogy Starters: For more in the Trilogy Starters series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2011 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/19/20 Brian "Poltergeist" clone with a taller expert and different explanation. Overrated. 2 stars
3/08/20 dupadoit it's not the house that's haunted 4 stars
2/13/17 morris campbell fun and scary horror buffs take note 4 stars
6/20/13 mr.mike Was "no bad". 4 stars
12/22/12 Marty Cool idea, overall scary movie with some corny parts. predictable end. 3 stars
10/23/12 Stephanie Has a couple of creep factors that stay with you. 4 stars
8/27/12 David Pollastrini good, but not worth a second watch. 3 stars
9/09/11 The Big D Not as scary as Dark Night of the Scarecrow, but it will creep you out! 4 stars
7/15/11 othree slow bad acting cheezy crap ending do something else for 143 mins! srsly 1 stars
5/15/11 stephen nettles SCARY 5 stars
4/25/11 Dottie Scariest I've seen in awhile & I see them all-I'm a horror fan-& am usually disappointed. 5 stars
4/22/11 damalc Poltergeist + Paranormal Activity. and wasn't that Darth Maul? 3 stars
4/18/11 tank1229 the ending was rushed but overall it was a scary good time 5 stars
4/16/11 rlc this film is just wat ive been waiting for an i dont no y every1 is giving it harsh critics 5 stars
4/06/11 karamashi When it isn't explaining itself, its forgettable and sometimes creepy fun. 3 stars
4/05/11 Luisa First half is scary and creepy, clowns and ghouls at the end, not so much. 3 stars
4/04/11 Dorothy Rozdilsky Not sure but don't think i'd ever watch it again 3 stars
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  01-Apr-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 12-Jul-2011


  DVD: 12-Jul-2011

Directed by
  James Wan

Written by
  Leigh Whannell

  Patrick Wilson
  Rose Byrne
  Barbara Hershey
  Ty Simpkins
  Andrew Astor
  Angus Sampson

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