Insidious – 4.75 stars

From third through about sixth grade, I suffered night terrors. I was also an intrepid sleepwalker. The former malady evinced itself in my waking up, eyes wide open and fully cognizant of my surroundings, but in abject fear. That fear sent me running to the place I deemed safest. At home, it was my mother’s room, though my brothers made great sport in waylaying me as I sped down the hall screaming. If I spent the night at a friend’s house, their parents were also at risk. That I was invited back after one of these episodes is a testament to their patience and generosity. Crying and screaming, I’d burst through the door and launch myself onto their bed, hands covering my face. Something was after me, I couldn’t look at it, and I could only be coaxed out of the nightmare by soothing words and television. I watched a lot of Johnny Carson growing up.

During that same time, on other occasions but less frequently, I would sleepwalk. However, I didn’t confine my travels to the house. Instead, I would get out of bed and walk around the neighborhood. I recall the misty feel, the trance-like state, and the absolute inability to stop myself. I’ve often wondered what someone would have done had they seen me out at 2 am, on a cold December morning, ambling around like a zombie in my pajamas. But I was never spotted, always ending up in my own bed. The only proof of the occurrence was my vague recollections, dirty and/or bloody feet and the times I started the evening at a friend’s house down the block, only to be listed as AWOL by his mother in the morning. My mother would see the front door wide open, and find me in my own bed.

Insidious uses the realm of sleep to create (or, in my case, re-create) a terrifying world where, presumably, children like me go when afflicted. The son of Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids) and Patrick Wilson (Little Children) sleepwalks to the attic, bumps his head, and falls into an inexplicable coma. Only, it is not a coma. Instead, he has drifted into what is later explained as “The Further,” a dream-state that is unfortunately populated by the restless dead, who hope to capture the boy simply because they thirst for his life, and more dangerous demons, who want his body to re-enter the world and wreak havoc. Modern medicine fails, the less-conventional expert steps in, and away we go. It is revealed that Wilson suffered night terrors as a boy, and the unwanted attentions of this particular demon as a child:

Wilson is sent in to get his son.

Director James Wan’s (Saw, The Conjuring) world is creepy (the two demons in particular); the scares are initially restrained, but plentiful, and meted out in increasing doses; and the acting first-rate. As the mother, Byrne is sympathetic and appropriately destabilized, and Wilson plays the father as truly scared and vulnerable – he is gripped by initial cowardice and denial; he does not want to go back to the world that so plagued him as a child. The medium (Lin Shaye) is compelling and her two researcher assistants provide necessary comic-relief without being obtrusive – this is the same set-up as Poltergeist minus the over-the-top “This house is cleeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaan” nonsense.

The film’s primary strength is its patience. As Wan explains:

Between ‘Saw’ and ‘Paranormal Activity’, along with the ‘Blair Witch Project’, it’s been proven time and time again that the scariest movies are ones that are made outside of the studio system, where you have the control to say, “You know what? I’m not going to open the movie with a big, scary action set piece. I’m just going to slowly build characters and get you sucked into the family, get you liking the characters before things start to happen.”

If there are weaknesses, they are slight: the set-up is very derivative, the middle third is rushed, the revelation of Wilson’s demon in childhood photos is too overt, and Barbara Hershey (as Wilson’s mother) is wasted. To amp up the intrigue, Wan should have used Hershey in flashback, a helpless single mother trying to cope with her spooky son.

True, the movie hit home, but even without my sleep disturbance past, I’d have been won over, because Wan and writer Leigh Whannel credit The Changeling, an as yet unreviewed filmvetter favorite.

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