Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"What really lifts this, beyond its smart scripting and clever shifts of mood, is its remarkable beauty."

A nice family. A new house. Things disappearing, moving around. A nervous baby. Strange noises in the middle of the night. Haven't we seen this film before? You might think so but, whilst may aspects of Insidious' plot are formulaic, it's an intelligent film with a few surprises up its sleeve. It's also one of few recent horror films to be genuinely scary.

Rose Byrne is Renai, settling into her new home and doing the stay-at-home mother thing whilst she takes some time to work on her music. Her husband Josh (Patrick Wilson) is a teacher under pressure at work; they come across as real people with commonplace, mundane problems, which immediately makes them more sympathetic than most characters in this sort of story.

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It's the children who first seem to notice that all is not as it seems. Trees bang eerily against the window panes at night; a rocking horse moves back and forth on its own beside a crib. These are references to other horror films, of course, but the film never depends on them nor hides behind them, so they're fun to spot without being intrusive. In many ways they mislead us into thinking this is going to be a lighter, easier film to watch than is really the case.

As Renai starts to see things, her relationship with Josh becomes strained and their lives are further complicated by a family tragedy, but there is no recourse to plot padding with the tedious business of watching people doubt each other. These are people who care about each other and try to do the right thing no matter what they suspect is really going on. This makes it easier to care about them, and to trust them, and to get closer to the horrors at the film's core.

To say too much more would give too much away, but suffice to say that this is no mere series of shocks, nor does it rely on gore to give it its edge. Underlying the immediate dangers which the family finds itself facing is an undercurrent of far darker existential horror. Towards the end we veer off into Fulci territory as the weight of the narrative shifts from Renai to Josh, allowing Wilson to reveal a depth of acting ability he wisely held back in earlier scenes. Ty Simpkins' naturalistic turn as their troubled son adds an authenticity to these scenes that belies their surreal nature.

There are a few flaws with this film. In places a surfeit of horrors threatens to tangle up the plot too much, leading viewers to give up rather than continuing to be drawn in by the mystery (which, at its best, is deceptively simple). There's also a villain who, despite the effectively creepy way he's presented, looks too much like Darth Maul to be taken entirely seriously.

What really lifts this, beyond its smart scripting and clever shifts of mood, is its remarkable beauty. The cinematography by David M Brewer and John R Leonetti is truly stunning and the set design is perfect throughout, shifting us through a variety of very different but completely convincing environments. Great sound work completes the job, though you should be warned that there is a sequence with a burglar alarm which is genuinely painful on the ears (if you stick your fingers in them you won't miss any important dialogue). Given how tired Wan's Saw franchise has become it is remarkable to see him pull off something like this. Horror fans will be delighted; casual cinemagoers will be scared out of their wits; and critics will be watching eagerly to see what he does next.

Reviewed on: 09 Apr 2011
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Insidious packshot
An ordinary family begin to panic when strange things start happening in their new home.
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Director: James Wan

Writer: Leigh Whannell

Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, Barbara Hershey

Year: 2010

Runtime: 103 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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