Blu-ray Review: Insidious

Led Zeppelin epitomized testosterone-fueled rock & roll — heavy metal at its finest. But that didn’t mean the band couldn’t go mellow once in a while (as in “Going to California”). 

It’s like that in the horror world, too. Until recently, director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell were best known as the team behind the Saw franchise, that balls-out splatterfest encompassing not only movies (seven, at last count) but also videogames, comic books, and more. Now, Wan and Whannell are spreading their wings a bit. At its core, Insidious is definitely a horror flick, but it’s more of a ballad than a headbanger, eschewing the gore and torture of the Saw series for chills of a more refined nature.

While it borrows liberally from many movies (a fact that’s made clear in the extras), Insidious owes its biggest debt to Poltergeist, yet it’s not a blatant rip-off. Like that 1982 classic, it riffs on the notion of an alternate plane of existence where spirits of the dead hang out and lament the fact that they’re no longer among the living. Some of these spirits are just jealous; others are considerably more malevolent. Care to guess which kind shows up here?

This wasn’t a big-budget production. On balance, that probably helped the finished movie more than it hurt it. As a veteran suspense-meister, Wan knows how to tweak the images and narrative of a scene to maximize the screams. So, you won’t find a lot of CGI here. What you will find are several genuinely scary set pieces, most of them accomplished by plain old analog filmmaking: props, lighting, set design, makeup.

Budget considerations noted, it would be a stretch to call Insidious a technical tour de force on Blu-ray. Darkness is pretty much a given when your heroes and villains are mucking about in a shadowy netherworld. Still, I would’ve liked a bit more detail and contrast in the 2.40:1 picture’s blackness. In fact, I would’ve liked blacker blacks. Even in the more traditionally lit scenes, the color palette isn’t particularly vibrant or expansive. (I’ve seen redder blood.)

Sonically, things fare better. Joseph Bishara’s score uses hard-struck, demonic-sounding strings and other instruments to excellent punctuating effect. (And I’ll go out on a limb to say that I’ve never heard a more deliciously ironic use of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”) The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix has plenty of low-frequency energy, though not of the rib-rattling variety; you hear the bass but don’t necessarily feel it. Occasionally, the surround channels help provide a genuine 360º arc around the action. However, the majority of the sound stays front and center.

The extras package isn’t exhaustive, but I liked it. Three making-of featurettes, taken as a whole, provide not only a nice array of production nuggets but also an interesting window into the filmmakers’ creative process. For example, I found it refreshing that Wan and Whannell actively focused on avoiding some of the more typical and played-out conventions of the horror/suspense genre. Plus, “On Set with Insidious” does a great job of capturing how much fun it is to make a movie that’s designed to scare the hell out of you.