Before the movie began tonight at the Tuesday night edition of Midnight Madness at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, director James Wan said of his new film "Insidious" that he wants the movie to be "the 'Poltergeist' for this generation."

I leaned over to Scott Weinberg and Erik Childress and whispered, "Big words."  I admire anyone who aims high, but saying it right before you're about to screen your film to a midnight audience who has turned out for the new film from the team behind "Saw" is borderline hubris.

And even so, James Wan and Leigh Wannell pulled it off.  "Insidious" is nothing less than an instant addition to the horror canon, an exuberant haunted house ride that throws some great narrative twists at the audience while always doing one thing consistently:  actually scaring the audience.  It is uncommonly good, and Wan's best film by a wide margin.  I am not surprised to see Sony pick up "Insidious" immediately so they can make a ton of money with it.  More importantly, I hope they distribute it as a big mainstream title because i want the widest possible audience to have a shot at seeing a film that reminded me tonight that there is always room for a new riff on an old idea if it's done right.

"Insidious" deals with a family (mom, dad, two sons and a baby girl) moving into a new house, and as soon as you see the house, you know where things are going.  Or at least you think you do.  The film takes its time establishing character and mood, but right from the very first shot of the film, Wan is playing with you. 

The most impressive thing about the movie is how there are no cheap shots, no jump scares, no cats knocking over garbage cans.  Everything in the movie that is designed to freak you out or terrify you is of consequence, organic to the film, substantial.  Even in that first shot, what you see pretty much lays out the entire film, although you won't understand what you're seeing.  Even the opening titles here work to set mood with subtle, impressive imagery that hints at what sort of things you can expect from the film.

The oldest son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), falls and bumps his head after an encounter with… something… in the attic of the house, and so begins a wicked fun movie that constantly works to subvert expectations.  Patrick Wilson stars as Josh, the family dad who suddenly finds his world view challenged by what happens to his family.  Rose Byrne is his wife Renai, an aspiring songwriter who is hoping to find some peace at this new home so she can work on her art a bit.  And when things start to happen in the new house, the film follows Renai for the most part.  She's the one who starts to piece together that something's happening to them.  Rose Byrne has slowly but surely evolved into a consistently strong and interesting lead, and I've really liked her work this year.  She and Wilson have an extremely strong rapport in the film, and there's a strong connection between them.  When things do start to go wrong, really wrong, she is the first one willing to make the jump, to believe what's happening to them.  Josh resists as long as he can, determined to find a rational explanation for what's happening.

The scares in the movie are genuine haunted house scares.  It looks like 99% of this was done in-camera.  Wan is the movie star here, constantly roaming these spaces where this family faces off against something, some force that's trying to pry them apart somehow.  Explanations are difficult in movies like this.  Too much and you risk it being ridiculous.  Not enough and you risk frustrating the audience.  And what kind of backstory you give these things is important.  Wan and Wannell know what the risks are in the film, and they work studiously to avoid them.  There's a fairly big narrative twist halfway through that is shocking precisely because of the way it refutes tradition, but it's also just good storytelling.  

Wannell appears in the film as Specs, part of a paranormal research team that includes the large and bearded Tucker (Angus Sampson) and the oh-my-god-so-good Lin Shaye as Elise Reiner.  She's playing the sort of the special researcher that Beatrice Straight played in "Poltergeist," but she plays her own riff entirely.  It's really strong work, and Shaye deserves it.  Everyone knows her from her broad comedy roles, but here, she's perfect as the woman who comes in to help them sort out their problem.  Barbara Hershey is also in the film as Lorraine, Josh's mother.  She's got secrets that may have something to do with what's happening, and it's beautifully parceled out exposition, all of it dragging the audience by the back of the neck towards these deliciously terrible things.  Wannell and Sampson are the comic relief, and they walk a real tightrope in terms of tone.  They are used perfectly as the pressure valve for the very real sense of terror that set in all around us during the screening.

"Insidious" is exciting because it wants to scare you.  Not gross you out, not offend you, not push you to the breaking point, not abuse you, not educate you… just scare you.  My wife hates most horror films because she complains they're super-gross and they're just noisy instead of scary.  She would most likely love "insidious" because it's a visceral movie, a fun house, but I can't think of one reason why the film would be rated anything more than a PG-13.  It's strong, but it's smart about it.  The film leans so heavily on the storage and the surreal to disturb that it doesn't need to be extremely explicit.  It's just not that kind of film, and it's better for it.  

Late in the film, Patrick Wilson takes center stage, and when he does, the script really snaps into focus.  Suddenly, I didn't just like the movie… I loved it.  I loved the way Wilson's character moves through the film, and the reasons behind his acceptance of certain things.  It's so honest, and it's so earned.  Once he and Byrne are united, the rest of the film becomes a team effort involving them and Lin Shaye's people trying to hold back.. well, you'll see what they're trying to hold back.

And thanks to Sony, I hope you'll see it very soon.

I'll have four more Midnight Madness reviews for you before the Toronto coverage wraps up, and it's been a great program this year.

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