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April 10, 2011


(2010, Dir. by James Wan.)

A married couple and their children deal with a peculiar haunting in Insidious, which is born from the minds of writer Leigh Whannell and director James Wan.  The duo, who created Saw - for better or worse - and the creepy puppet chiller Dead Silence are staking their claim as a force in the horror scene - again, for better or worse - and Insidious is certainly their most mature and effective film yet.  However, I still struggle with proclaiming their work on Insidious to be entirely successful.

Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne star as the couple dealing directly with the haunting and they, along with their two young sons and infant daughter, are certainly painted as a normal family early on.  When I say normal, I don't mean they're the prototypical Hollywood family, I mean they seem like an actual normal family, dealing with everyday problems and being worn down by the world around them.  The plot opens as they've just moved into a ridiculously large and seemingly isolated home, which comes with a lot of creaky wood floors and a creepy attic that would make the residents of Amityville shiver.  It also seems to come with a few surprises, like the fragile old wooden ladder in said attic that their eldest son, Dalton, falls off of early in the film.  (In a stroke of bad parenting that the film glosses over, Byrne's character found out the ladder wasn't safe earlier the same day.  My parents would have told me stories like the rest of the film to scare me away from ever going near that ladder which, in hindsight, is probably also bad parenting.  Oh well.)

Dalton ends up in a kind-of-coma-but-not actually-a-coma that doctors can't explain, and in the meantime strange events continue to occur.  Byrne's Renai seems to be at the center of all this as Wilson's Josh continues to distance himself from the proceedings.  As the film nears its midpoint, the family has had enough with their home - which must have been a chore to heat anyway, what with its huge ceilings - and move to a smaller, more residential home where they can take care of Dalton and hopefully not deal with bumps in the night.

If you've seen any of the advertising for the film, you've heard a paranormal psychic character played by Lin Shaye announce the revelation that comes next.  Unfortunately, in a horror film, you can't just move halfway through the film and then live happily ever after.  The second half of the film brings not only Shaye's welcome presence as the film's "Ahab", but also introduces one of my favorite people, Barbara Hershey (who's still so lovable), as Josh's concerned mother.  Both hold key plot points that help the final act, and I was surprised at how well that final act came together on screen.  The film goes to a unique and interesting place as it moves toward a conclusion, which is very welcome before the final couple of scenes.

My biggest problems with Insidious had to do with its presentation.  Wan films the whole story with a muted color palette that I found extremely unappealing, and the final act slips into that "Hey, let's just turn all the lights out and flash some colors once in a while" trap that many modern horror filmmakers have.  Additionally, the film's sound mixing is exceedingly loud and shrill.  The coloring and sound do a great job of creating unease and tension in the viewer from a physical standpoint - but so would a pair of electrified clamps connected to their skin.  This is full-blown Pavlovian horror, as it seems the filmmakers want us to be conditioned to fear the creaks and corners we sense danger in.  To an extent that's fine, but I felt like these choices - which felt like blatant attempts to manipulate the viewer emotionally - took away from my ability to care about what was going on with the characters.

With the first half of the film being primarily about these shocking moments, the changes in the second house and second half of the movie were welcome to me.  I found myself appreciating the visuals a bit more - though I did think the "entities" that began to appear weren't the most interesting threats I'd ever seen on screen (while many said one was a demonic Darth Maul, no one warned me that one appears to be a zomified Tim Capello) - and I certainly became more involved with the characters now that we had more backstory into what was going on.

I'm probably overanalyzing Insidious.  It offers a unique horror story and plenty of jumps on a modest budget.  But I couldn't help feeling that it just wasn't my kind of horror movie I wanted for the first hour, and the obvious final scenes left a bad taste in my mouth too.  Still, the end result is at least a fun chiller that could be watched with friends who are casually interested in horror.  Perhaps my gripes with the film's style may fade upon second glance, but for now I can't give Insidious more than a modest recommendation based on my personal experience with the film.

1 comment:

Bill Oberst Jr. said...

Great review, Mike. I'm a horror genre actor in Los Angeles and just did a shoot with the actress who's face graces the poster (the Bride) and we came to the same conclusions. Love your blog. Keep telling it like it is!

Bill Oberst Jr.