Horror fans will quickly realize the bulk of what Insidious, shot as "The Astral", offers isn't new ground. Drips and drabs of such classics like The Exorcist, Poltergeist, and The Changeling are brought into the duo's arsenal along with a sense they're not done mining the creepiness of turn-of-the-century spirits haunting the present as previously seen in their Dead Silence in 2007.
To their credit, the fine line between pandering to hollow chair jumping is straddled extremely well as a genuine build settles. It's still very much a popcorn horror flick, so much of the family drama never fully bakes, the couple's two other young kids just sorta disappear, and pains are taken with explaination, "it's not the house that's haunted" (no shit?), to the destruction of a more subtle nuance that could have seen Insidious busting through that mainstream genre ceiling into something with classic status potential. Job one is to be frightening, and this one succeeds in the short term, but it's not something like, say...David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers. Despite myself being the farthest thing from an affluent, accomplished middle-aged gynecologist with an identical twin, something very unsettling remains for quite sometime after the credits roll. Wan's film only leaves you wondering if the whole out-of-body experience deal is real or not.
The demon gunning for the boy's eternal soul suffers from overexposure. The millisecond fragments witnessed early and illustration from a medium's description are far more effective than seeing what ultimately looks like Darth Maul's shorter brother with hooves in plain view.
The other, slightly more innocuous spirits of the limbo realm dubbed "The Further" are very reminiscent of the waxy figures in Willie Malone's The House on Haunted Hill update (an aspect also picked up in J. Astro's thoughts over at Screen Grab!). Maybe I'm hard to please, but neither spooked me much afterward stumbling around downstairs in the dark. My vision of hell's forever wraith is approximated best by the art of Francis Bacon ("Figure with Meat" detail to the right). Place those visions onto film and CNN would be reporting of thirteen-year-olds having heart attacks in crowded theaters. Some lipstick wearing prick with armor rings from Hot Topic and gothic drag queens? Guys, you could have easily done better. Shit, ever see the drawings in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark?
Still, for all of Insidious's rough patches, sticking to a PG-13 and turning out so well received both critically and financially deserves praise. The flourishes and tangents indulged in the last reel feel more bold, and have a hard-to-place '80s flare, than compensation toward those bored with the bumps in the night. It's another step in showing the mainstream is willing to enjoy a better tonal balance in their date night horror diet over self-imposed limb torture or Milla J. doing gunfire-flavored backflips while killing CG-mouthed zombies...in 3D. If this trend continues, I'm unsure where the end destination is, but we're definitely getting there.