Saturday, April 2, 2011
If This Movie Doesn't Make Your Skin Crawl...It's On Too Tight!
When it comes to ad campaigns for horror films, the art of hyperbole went out of fashion a long time ago. I guess as audiences got more "sophisticated" (not so sophisticated that they've stopped flocking to crap, but whatever...) it became detrimental to pitch a film by promising terror like you've never experienced it before. Still, I think it's a shame that horror movies aren't promoted with such bold claims anymore. You know, stuff like this:
That was always part of the fun of following the genre - up until around the mid-'80s or so, every horror movie was marketed to the hilt. I'm thinking about all this at the moment thanks to the new ghost pic Insidious - an old fashioned fright fest that really deserved an old-school promotion. You know, because the poster they went with just doesn't do the movie justice:
Sure, a more lurid ad campaign might've turned off potential viewers by making the movie seem cheap or corny but I'm telling you - if there was ever a modern horror film that warranted a '60s or '70s-style one-sheet with the promise that the movie would deliver "Shock After Shock After Shock...." and dire warnings that this is NOT for the faint of heart, it's Insidious. There's so many jolts packed into its 102 minute running time that if Insidious utilized the Horror Horn and Fear Flasher from 1966's Chamber of Horrors, you'd never be able to hear or see the actual movie in the ensuing cacophony.
The latest collaboration from director James Wan and writer/actor Leigh Whannell, Insidious finds the duo further shedding their image as the creators of the grim, hyperviolent Saw series by following up on the seeds planted in their mostly unsuccessful 2007 attempt at old-school terror, Dead Silence. Here, freed of the studio interference that reportedly hampered that film, they dive full-on into making Insidious a classic spook show.
Sam Raimi went after a similar goal two years ago with his 2009 return to horror, Drag Me To Hell, but while that film has its devoted admirers (myself among them) Raimi's patented flourishes didn't click with most audiences (or with many horror buffs, for that matter). Hardcore Raimi fans ate up such sights as a possessed character suspended on wires and doing a Deadite jig but most others said "I'll pass, thanks." With Insidious, I think Wan has succeeded in crafting a better Raimi-esque "spook-a-blast" than Raimi himself.
Even the most casual fan genre will find that Insidious is not a terribly original movie as Whannell's screenplay cribs freely from The Shining (1980), Poltergeist (1982), Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994), and Paranormal Activity (2009) - whose director, Oren Peli, is on board here as a producer. But its preponderance of influences aside, Insidious is convincingly acted and directed by Wan with an innate knack for maximizing each scare. Wan and Whannell also sprinkle in just enough quirky touches of their own (like how the psychic investigators use a converted View-Master to look for ghosts) that the movie doesn't just feel like a pastiche of other films.
Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne star as Josh and Renai - a not-terribly happy couple who are the parents of three children. Their youngest is just a baby but their two older boys - Dalton and Foster - are both of school age. When Dalton (Ty Simpkins) mysteriously lapses into a coma shortly after taking what appears to be a minor fall, Josh and Renai are at a loss. Doctors tell the distraught parents that no brain damage can be detected but yet Dalton won't wake up. After several months of hospital stay, the still-comatose Dalton is moved back home. That's when Renai starts to see things that she can't explain and comes to the conclusion that their house is haunted.
Josh isn't as convinced the house is haunted as Renai is but he agrees to move the family anyway. Shortly after the new move, even more dramatic paranormal activity takes place, prompting Josh's mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) to put the couple in contact with Elise Reiner (Lin Shaye), an old friend of hers who happens to be a psychic.
Once Elise and her two assistants Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) arrive, the story takes a slightly awkward shift but not so much as to derail the movie. Wan and Whannell use these characters - particularly Specs and Tucker - to bring some humor into the film but the pair's banter mostly falls flat. For me, though, this wasn't a sticking point and I found it easy to stay engaged in the film.
The climax of the film takes place on a spiritual, or astral, plane and either you'll go with it or you won't. I loved it myself and thought some of the movie's best moments were reserved for the finale. Without getting into heavy spoilers, I'll just say that I loved how Wan and Whannell didn't back down from trying to realize this sequence on a limited budget. It reminded me of the climax of another frugal production, The Night Flier (1997), where Miguel Ferrer's character finds himself in a nightmarish black & white vision of an airport populated by the undead victims of a vampire. There was a slightly hokey quality to that scene as it couldn't disguise its bargain basement means but there was also a great sense that director Mark Pavia wasn't shying away from that - that he knew genre fans would respond to it in the right way. It seemed like a perfect approximation of something that one would've stumbled across while flipping channels late at night during the '70s or early '80s and that's how the climax of Insidious feels to me, too.
Wan and Whannell bust out the fog machines, the candles, and they put their actors in antique clothes with their faces thick with pasty, Carnival of Souls-style make-up. And as if that isn't enough, they give some extra screentime to their film's main boogeyman, a creature listed in the credits as Lipstick-Face Demon (Joseph Bishara). Far out!
For some, it all might be too much or too silly but I found it to be emblematic of what Wan and Whannell were striving for - a Haunted House ride put on film. Insidious' climax brought back fond memories for me of my times as a kid riding through this funhouse that was once located in Riverside Park in Agawam, Massachusetts:
While I'll jump to defend its climax, I did find fault with Insidious elsewhere. As I said, the film's humor mostly fell flat with me. I guess Wan and Whannell felt obliged, following horror movie tradition, to give the audience some funny moments to break the tension but the problem is that these moments just don't score the laughs that they're aiming for (not with me, at least - your mileage may vary).
I also thought the portrayals of Renai and Josh misstepped once or twice into making them too unsympathetic. For instance, there's a scene where Renai is waiting for Josh on the front steps of the house as he comes home exceedingly late from his teaching job (by the way, how Josh is able to afford to keep his family afloat - and in a sizable home to boot - solely on a teacher's salary is a supernatural feat of its own) and Renai berates him about how she's scared to be in the house. Fair enough to a point but when you have a mother saying how she's scared to be in a house and she's sitting outside while her three children - including one baby and one child who's in a coma - are completely alone inside it makes the character look like a thoughtless idiot. You can be damn sure that Diane Freeling wouldn't have made a parenting lapse like that in Poltergeist.
Speaking of Poltergeist, I also wish that the cast of Insidious would've had as strong a chemistry between them as the cast of that earlier film. There's no bad performances in Insidious but outside of Lin Shayne, no one jumps out as being memorable in their own right. Josh and Renai are supposed to be a much more divided couple than Steve and Diane Freeling (we see them suffering marriage woes well before the supernatural intrudes) so having them showing a tighter bond would be out of place but yet there's such a believable rapport between all the characters in Poltergeist - from Steve and Diane and their kids to the trio of psychic investigators and Zelda Rubinstein's iconic Tangina Barrons - that Insidious just fails to compare in that regard.
That said, I actually think Insidious is a better film overall than Poltergeist. Next to Poltergeist's cast, Insidious' players are accomplished but not outstanding but judged as a ruthless scare machine, Insidious handily trumps Poltergeist. Sacrilegious as it may be to say so, and as well as some of its scares still hold up, Poltergeist has not dated well. The first forty minutes or so are great but once the tree outside Robbie and Carol Anne's bedroom window comes to life and the tornado touches down in the Freeling's backyard, the FX starts to become the cart leading the horse. In the end, its great performances and Jerry Goldsmith's classic score aside, I find it to be just barely better than Steven Spielberg's other haunted house production - his bloated remake of The Haunting (1999).
"Bloated" isn't a word that can be applied to Insidious, however. While as horror fans we've recently had cause to lament the reluctance of studios to fund big budget genre productions, Insidious is a timely reminder of how the efforts of indie filmmakers historically lead the horror pack. And coming off the previous decade's protracted fascination with torture (a fascination fueled in part by Wan and Whannell themselves), Insidious is also a much-needed affirmation that there's still a place for horror films that seek to leave their audience exhilarated and ready to take the ride again.