I loved Insidious, but man, does that movie ride on a catastrophe curve. I can easily imagine circumstances under which it would really have pissed me off. Without giving too much in the way of spoilers, the third act takes a pretty sharp left turn from the ghost-story genre to something closer to the dark-fantasy genre, and also switches POV characters. If you’re willing to take that left turn along with it, you’ll probably love the movie too, or at least not hate it. If you’re not, Insidious will leave you in the dust with no real resolution to the great ghost story you were watching, and you’ll probably be pretty annoyed.
In a lot of ways the film feels like watching a sort of updated re-envisioning of Poltergeist with younger kids and creepier ghosts. Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) and their three kids are the suburban Everyfamily, just moved into a new house; Josh is a high school teacher and Renai is a songwriter. (Apparently a successful one, because no way did they afford that house on a high school teacher’s salary. Five high school teachers living in sin with a Maserati salesman could not afford that house.) I liked the Lamberts – they’re immediately engaging and have enough chemistry with each other that they feel like a real family. And man, could I ever relate to Renai’s battles with voice-driven menu systems on customer service lines. Those things hate me too, Renai.
Then the oldest boy, Dalton, falls off a ladder in the attic and whacks his head. He seems fine, but in the morning he won’t wake up, despite the inability of doctors to figure out what’s wrong with him. And then creepy things start happening in earnest, and man, are they creepy. I can’t even really describe them without spoiling them, but there are not just jump scares but some terrifically scary set pieces. Eventually it reaches a point where the Lamberts are so freaked out that they do what I swear no horror-movie family has done before or since: they move out of the damn house.
Unfortunately for them, the creepy happenings just follow them.
Almost everything in Insidious just plain works. The effects are good. The sound work is amazing. The scares are scary. The soundtrack cost me a lot of money when I had to go buy Ludovico Einaudi’s entire collected works. The Lamberts are sympathetic and convincing. Barbara Hershey is amazing in the unexpectedly important role of Josh’s mother, and Lin Shaye brings a presence to the Obligatory Quirky Psychic role that somehow manages to minimize the role’s resemblance to Tangina in Poltergeist. There’s a plot point reveal scene involving Josh looking through photos from his childhood that is genuinely one of the creepiest moments I’ve seen in a movie.
Unfortunately, what does not work – and it really does not work – is the main villain. I, too, loved Darth Maul. I just don’t know that I’d put a tribute character in the central bad-guy role of a movie in a completely different genre. I’m just saying.
Still, the rest of Insidious works well enough to overcome even that not inconsiderable handicap. And when your movie is working well enough to get people past not only the déjà vu caused by the resemblance to Poltergeist but also that moment of “What the hell is Darth Maul doing in this movie?” then overall you’re probably doing a whole lot of things very right.
So what’s the verdict? Four stars. I might even have given it five, but I felt like something really needed to be deducted for the Darth Maul misstep and the abrupt switchover in POV characters.
Actually I almost deducted another star for the costume designer or whoever it was in the special features talking about how the creepy old woman was actually played by a man. Because it’s creepy! You can’t tell if it’s a woman or a man! IT’S A MAN IN WOMEN’S CLOTHES, OMG, WHAT COULD BE ICKIER AND CREEPIER?
Well, you and your gross transphobic issues, is what. But that’s on you, not on the movie, so the rating stays where it is.