With Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, Barbara Hershey. Directed by James Wan. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, violence, terror and frightening images, and brief strong language. 102 minutes.
For anyone who has grown sick of the “splatterporn” that has passed itself off as the modern horror movie, the idea that director James Wan (whose credits include the original “Saw”) was going “old school” with a haunted house story sounded promising. INSIDIOUS fails to live up to that promise in nearly every way. It is little more than a pale copy of “Poltergeist,” which is now sufficiently ancient that today’s teen and twenty-something horror buffs will probably not have seen it.
The movie takes forever to get underway. The Lambert family moves into a lovely old house with their three kids, but odd things start happening. Books fall off a shelf. Mom (Rose Byrne) can’t find a box that mysteriously reappears in the attic. Voices are heard over the baby monitor. Oh, and Dad (Patrick Wilson), a school teacher, finds excuses to stay late at the office, as if he can’t grade exams at home.
Then little Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falls off a ladder and bumps his head. The next morning he’s in a coma. Tests show no trauma or other cause for his state. Months go by. It’s only a few moments of screen time, but you may start to feel that months are going by and nothing is happening. When Mom starts to see strange people around the house, it’s time for the family to move.
Unfortunately, the hauntings continue at the new house and that’s when Grandma Lorraine (an utterly wasted Barbara Hershey) suggests that they need to bring in her friend Elise (Lin Shaye). If you’ve seen “Poltergeist” you know what’s coming. The strange lady is going to reveal the mystery and explain what needs to be done. This is done through a process that is simultaneously hilariously preposterous and not the least bit frightening. Indeed, the scariest thing in the movie may be the inexplicable use of Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” on the soundtrack.
The last portion of the film is where all the really scary stuff is supposed to happen, as Dalton is tracked into some netherworld of evil spirits blandly called “the Further.” Here we get the sort of cheap thrills that are better done by cut-rate, seasonal scream-in-the-dark attractions. The best thing about the movie is Lin Shaye – better known for her comedy work with the Farrelly Brothers – who somehow manages to keep a straight face while delivering Leigh Whannell’s leaden dialogue. Whannell doesn’t spare himself, taking the role of one of her assistants.
“Insidious” is a crashing bore, and will likely only frighten people who have never seen any horror movies. Good luck with that. Viewers who haven’t seen “Poltergeist” or the more recent “Drag Me To Hell” should skip this one and check those films out to see how this sort of thing can be done right.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.