1. "Poltergeist" was the first movie that truly terrified me, and I suspect, among those of my age group, I'm not alone. "Poltergeist" was rated PG -- amazingly, in retrospect -- and my parents, perhaps confused by the rating and perhaps being a bit irresponsible, took me to see it at the age of six. It was too much: According to Sally Leitch, we had to leave halfway through because I wouldn't stop crying. (To be fair, this also happened during "Mr. Mom.") "Poltergeist" was a giddily scary mashup of the suburban wonder of Steven Spielberg and the grindhouse slasher mentality of director Tobe Hooper; it was both innocent and malevolent. It inspired a whole generation of filmmakers, from J.J. Abrams to Jonathan Demme, and countless knockoffs. "Insidious" wants, desperately, to be a 2011 version of "Poltergeist,"
complete with jump-scares, spooky noises and children in peril. But,
suffice it to say, it won't be remembered in 30 years. It's not nearly
as much fun. It knows what it wants to be, not what it is.
2. Director James Wan made his name directing the first "Saw" film, but the accidental success of that film and its sequels is more a branding exercise for "Insidious" than a logical progression. Wan is trying to make an old-fashioned creaky-staircase haunted house horror flick, but, frankly, he doesn't quite have the chops to pull it off. From the opening sequence, which features super-loud shock-strings from the soundtrack and an all-caps "INSIDIOUS" blaring across the screen, Wan wants this to be "Poltergeist" with a modern Hitchcock bent. But he doesn't have nearly a firm enough grasp of his material. It's mostly just a series of scary things jumping out at you from the dark. An endless series.
3. We meet the Lamberts, a suburban couple straight out of "Poltergeist," but not nearly as interesting, who discover that their oldest son has fallen into a coma. Well, not a coma, exactly; the doctors don't know what's wrong with him, only that he has been sleeping for three months. With the father (Patrick Wilson, in an oddly vacant performance) away at work, the mother (Rose Byrne, who has a creepily thin Shelley Duvall thing going) notices strange sounds and bloody handprints around her home. She switches homes, but the hauntings only grow worse, to the point that eventually there's a demonic boy who keeps putting Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Through The Tulips" on her record player. (Now that's scary.) The first 45 minutes of the film, as this couple and their children are tormented by their house, inspires legitimate fear; there's an eerie moment with Byrne and the demonic boy that'll make you jump. For these 45 minutes, the film works, as we wonder what it is that's haunting this family and why, exactly, the father is responding to the frights so distantly, so obtusely. The film plants several seeds that keep us intrigued; what is going on with this house?
4. Unfortunately, the movie has an answer, and once you learn it, you'll prefer to have continued living in ignorance. I won't give it away here, except to say that it involves astral projection, a childhood secret and a crazy old lady straight from the Zelda Rubenstein school. The explanation for all the goings-on is pedestrian yet still confusing; it's also incredibly disappointing, a refutation of the intrigue that came before it. The last half of the movie dissolves into a series of campy fantasy sequences that seem beamed in from a different, worse movie. It makes you feel a little scammed by the first half of the movie. It was leading up to this? By the last frames, you'll be laughing more than cowering; Wan completely loses control of the whole enterprise.
5. The instinct to go back to horror's mid-80s heyday is an admirable one; director Ti West did a terrific job of it in his underrated "The House Of The Devil." It's certainly a suspenseful, fantastical upgrade from the torture porn of the "Saw" films or the you-are-there faux verite of "Paranormal Activity." But I wonder if part of the problem is "Insidious"' PG-13 rating. In the name of reaching more theaters and grabbing bigger box office, the movie pulls all its punches in its last hour, taking the safe, boring way out. And it doesn't have the Spielbergian awe and scope of "Poltergeist" to make up for it either. This is a movie that wants to be several movies at once. It turns out to be none of them.