Going to a horror flick these days is not dissimilar to attending mass; There are certain age-old customs to be endured. A gleeful moan as the lights dim, the brittle tapping of anxious toes on the floor, the first true scream as a shape darts across the screen.
Watching Insidious, the new film from James Wan, I expected these rituals. What instead caught me off-guard was a sage observation from one viewer behind me, during a theoretically scary moment: “Is that an elf?”
Renai (Rose Byrne), Josh (Patrick Wilson) and their three kids have just moved to a new house, after experiencing vague “problems” in the last one. Their oldest son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins) is exploring the attic one day and then, inexplicably, winds up in a coma shortly after.
Months go by, and strange things slowly begin to happen. Doors open on their own, disturbing sounds crackle through the baby monitor and, one night, a ghost that looks terrifyingly like Thomas Ian Griffith in The Karate Kid 3 hurtles through a bedroom window.
Enter a matronly mystic (Lin Shaye) and a team of paranormal activity technicians (Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell), both looking as though they failed their auditions for the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.
As the film’s ad campaign has already suggested, the house is not what’s haunted.
It seems Dalton, through his dreams, has become trapped in a netherworld of lost, malevolent spirits called “The Further,” without any means of finding his way home. Don’t you hate when that happens?
That Insidious fails in almost every respect is at first surprising, given the grisly talent evidenced in Wan and Whannell’s earlier collaboration.
But where Saw was an operatic bloodbath of wits and broken bones, spiritually sinister material like Insidious calls for a more delicate, tempered hand.
In Insidious, the most obvious tools in a cineaste’s handbook are employed to baffling effect. Cameras glide to and from in front of the family’s house. Loud gongs shake the viewers’ eardrums during brief appearances by ghosts and demons, most of which elicit more belly laughs than blubbering whimpers.
When a character describes a bad dream, we can be sure Wan will proceed to show us that dream, as though our own nightmarish projections were less worthy of inducing shivers and sweaty palms.
The worst offense is the lack of coalescence between the horror and the humdrum. Many times, Insidious feels like two different movies macromated together.
The more benign, domestic scenes are free of any atmosphere or unease. Once the bad guys turn up, the percussion intensifies, the lighting darkens and even the food in the refrigerator seems to ooze evil.
How Byrne and Wilson, both credible actors, wound up here is more unnerving than anything Wan can conjure.
Wilson, in particular, frets and frowns his way through the film, as though remembering the days when he was billed with Kate Winslet in Little Children. Even Barbara Hershey, who makes a late appearance as Josh’s mother, is not enough to lend an air of sophistication to the project.
The best that can be said about Insidious is it might cause viewers to consider watching The Shining again. If you want a successful example of the craft and convergence missing from Insidious, look no further than Stanley Kubrick’s phantasmal blood-chiller.
Throughout Wan’s picture, I couldn’t help but recall the labyrinthine halls of the Overlook Hotel and the sound of Danny Lloyd’s plastic tricycle wheels filling the empty hallways without the presence of digital effects, theatrical lighting or a Hollywood score to wipe away the dread.