Monday, October 14, 2013

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #6: Insidious

A couple of months ago I concluded an appreciative review of ‘The Conjuring’ thusly: “I’m curious to find out … exactly where James Wan became such an accomplished craftsman”. The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is ‘Insidious’ … kind of.

Made for a million and a half and looking like he spent ten times that much on it, ‘Insidious’ gelled with a moviegoing public fascinated by ‘Paranormal Activity’ and scared up over $90 million at the box office. It gave Wan the clout to make the bigger (but still, at $25 million, comparatively modestly) budgeted ‘The Conjuring’ and made an ‘Insidious’ sequel inevitable.

‘Insidious’ does a lot that marks it out from a slew of similar films, not least having a dictionary word for its title and not only understanding what that word means but keying in it to its aesthetic. It has a dependable cast, spends time establishing character and interaction, and allows them to behave intelligently. A major plus point here. How many horror movies have you seen where a beleaguered family stubbornly remain in their haunted residence, long after every logical and scientific rationale has been exhausted and the presence of supernatural forces proved beyond reasonable doubt? If for no other reason that the scene in which middle class couple Josh and Renai Lambert (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) decide during the first act that it might be a good idea to up sticks and relocate, I’m inclined to give ‘Insidious’ a pass and overlook how damned sloppy it gets towards the end.

Here’s the set up: Josh and Renai move, with their three kids (pre-teens Dalton and Foster and newborn Cali) into an old but spacious house. A house whose interior seems unremittingly dark, whose corners and corridors are shadowy. A house with the kind of attic that you wouldn’t want to spend too long in even if it wasn’t haunted. Weird things begin happening almost immediately: objects move from one room to another, doors slam shut, Renai hears a strange voice on the baby monitor and later glimpses a figure in Cali’s room. Dalton (Ty Simpkins), playing in the attic one day despite being warned it’s off limits, falls from a ladder. Shortly afterwards, he slips into a comatose state. Doctors are unable to determine why. Three months later, he’s still unconscious, the Lamberts are receiving help from a home nurse, and the weird happenings are just about to kick things up a notch.

The long and short of it is that Renai braces Josh and they decide to move. The haunting follows them.

So far, so good. A horror film featuring adult characters behaving in a recognisably adult manner rather than dumbass teens doing stupid things. And the “it’s not the house that’s haunted” rug-pull is a doozy, even though the posters gave it away from the outset.

Then things get a bit iffy: Josh’s mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) suggests her old friend Lin (Elise Rainier), who just happens to be an expert in the field of paranormal phenomena, would be the ideal person to help them. Lorraine’s motivation is a dream in which she seems a demon standing by Dalton’s bed, who conversationally informs her he has come for the boy. Enter Lin, with her grindingly unfunny comic relief assistants Specs (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the screenplay and if alarm bells are ringing at this point then you’re well ahead of me) and Tucker (Angus Sampson). Even at this point, the characters continue to exhibit realistic behaviours: Specs and Tucker at least try to undertake a scientific evaluation before the real spook show stuff cuts loose; and the tension between Josh and Renai is exacerbated as she buys into Lin’s portentous proselytizing while he recoils from it as so much bullshit.

Then things get really iffy: Lorraine reveals that when Josh was Dalton’s age he was able to astrally project and travelled, under the impression he was simply dreaming, to a realm called The Further and by doing so was followed back into the waking world by a demon. Lorraine shows them photographs which indicate a sinister presence behind the young Josh, inching closer to him in each shot. Lin intuits that the same thing has happened to Dalton and advises Josh that he will have to descend into The Further under hypnosis in order to rescue his son.

Leaving aside the implausibility that Lorraine would keep shtum about a past Josh has forgotten until three months after her grandson initially slipped into a coma that she knows isn’t a coma but an enforced stay in The Further, what happens next devalues the film almost to the point of parody.

Here’s the thing with the unknown: it frightens the most when it intrudes into the normal, the domestic, the everyday. Reverse the process and have the everyday (i.e. one unremarkable middle class guy) intrude on the unknown (i.e. The Further) and no matter how bizarro or Lynchian the imagery you conjure, it’s never as scary as, say, a silhouetted figure passing outside a bedroom window and then - bang! - suddenly appearing inside the room; or a face emerging from a painting right behind a character who’s completely unaware of it. At its best, ‘Insidious’ wrings significant scares from relatively simple set-ups and minimal requirement for special effects. Moreover, it works because Wan’s timing is impeccable: he virtually points out where and how the big scare moment will work, doesn’t deliver, seems about to move on to something else then – again, bang! - royally fucks you up with it.

Sadly, much of this good work goes south once Josh wanders into The Further, a place that can only be described as looking like Carnival of the Bizarre were trying out so new routines in Jack Ketchum’s basement and using a lot of dry ice to disguise any deficiencies. Oh, and The Further is ruled over by a demon who looks like he came last in a Darth Maul face-painting competition. It’s all incredibly silly and leads to a twist ending that you can see coming like an ocean liner on a duckpond. It’s the point at which Whannell’s script – not that it was particularly subtle to begin with – abandons all form of restraint and goes running around shrieking “Muh-hah-hah-haaaaa!!! I’m one of the demonic talents behind ‘Saw’. Are you scared yet? Are you, motherfucker? Are you? Muh-hah-hah-haaaaa!”, to which the only polite response can be a quiet observation that yes, actually, we were so why did you feel inclined to ruin it? That, and a vote of thanks that ‘The Conjuring’ was written by somebody who wasn’t Leigh Whannell.

When ‘Insidious’ works, it works incredibly well. But it remains a transitional film. It demonstrates all the strengths Wan would bring to ‘The Conjuring’, while suffering from the weaknesses that dogged ‘Saw’ and (so I’m told) ‘Dead Silence’. I’m aware that Wan and Whannell go back a long way and are big mates. Far be it from me to break up a bromance. But Wan sure as hell seems to deliver the goods in infinitely better style when he doesn’t have a Whannell script holding him back.

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