Friday, April 8, 2011

Insidious is... Pretty Damned Good

It's pretty rare for me to be scared by a horror film. Despite their supposed purpose, most horror titles might stretch a startled jump out of me, but rarely do "scary" movies live up to that particular descriptor. So it wasn't much of a surprise that I had little interest in and wasn't really looking forward to seeing Insidious, the latest haunting film by director James Wan. It's a bit far from his usual fare; Wan's Saw series practically created the torture/horror sub-genre, and that seems at odds with Insidious's apparent old-school style of tension and carefully-concealed scares. Non-informative trailers put forth very little to convey any real reason to go out and see it in the theater, and Insidious seemed destined to be one among many similar horror titles that only hardcore fans would bother with. Then the good reviews started appearing, and my buddy Southland Dan suddenly got extremely excited. Anyone who has seen us talk movies knows that me and Dan don't always agree when it comes to our opinions on film, but nevertheless we often get excited about the same things. All of the sudden I was roped in enough to check this film out on Monday (though it should be mentioned there was nothing left of interest to see, anyway). And so with Dan alongside, I made my way in town to see which of my two impressions would prove to be correct.

Peek-a-boo is not a fun game in this house
After moving into a new home in the suburbs with their three children, teacher Josh (Patrick Wilson) and homemaker/musician Renai (Rose Byrne) seem to have worked things out fairly well. Though they sometimes have problems, the couple and their family are largely happy and healthy. When their oldest son falls in an accident and goes into a coma that spans many months, Josh and Renai have more than enough problems on their hands. Problems don't let up however, and Renai witnesses several unexplainable events that make her believe that the house they live in is haunted. The couple seek help from an eccentric psychic (Lin Shaye) who gives them the grave news: it's not the house they have moved into that is haunted. The spirits they see are in fact haunting their comatose son.

With the cleaning power of Cheer(tm), this bloody stain will come right out!
The concept introduced here is actually quite interesting, and a nice twist on the haunted house motif. Every scene has some level of creepiness, proof of Wan's ability to keep the tension in play. Even better, he varies those tension levels so that no two scenes feel exactly the same, keeping the film from appearing stale or repetitive. One thing thankfully missing is the creepy kid scenario. Once Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falls into his coma, there's very little ability needed to play a sleeping kid. The other children disappear from the story once the truly insane stuff goes down, and we're left with the adults handling the situation, which is all I really ever wanted. The world doesn't need another Linda Blair, as one was quite good enough and unrepeatable, thank you. The creature designs are also extremely effective in their use. A good number of spirits haunt this family, each easily recognizable and scary in their own way. They range from a megalomaniacal dwarf to a sixties-era psychotic teenager to a demon that looks not a little like Darth Maul, each popping up unexpectedly and to great effect when they do. These elements create a great atmosphere in which to get the bejeesus scared out of you, much more than many recent horror film I can name.

Right through here, you can see the master bedroom, complete with its own wraith
The performers sent in to play the victims in this tale are definitely low-budget, but more than make up for their lack of high-roller credibility with amazing performances that work to enhance the film's vibe. Patrick Wilson has long gone unnoticed as a supporting actor in good films and a lead in bad or unpopular ones. Never very memorable, whether playing Nite Owl II in Watchmen or the evil Lynch in The A-Team, Wilson does all he can to put that aside in a very compelling role. Josh is a loving dad and husband, but doesn't always have the mental toughness to take on a trouble spot head-on, preferring to avoid adversity when it rears its head. In this way he's less able to handle his son's condition, and Wilson plays his part pretty damned well. Rose Byrne is better as Renai, and some of the scenes featuring the actress reacting to the strange happenings around her are the best in the film. Also a devoted parent, Renai is more willing to accept the idea of paranormal activity centering around her son, and some of the script revolves around these two very competent performers arguing over the correct course of action to take. Barbara Hershey may not have the same level of role that she had in last year's Black Swan, but she continues her horror career to great effect here as Josh's mother Lorraine and the couple's third-party adviser. Lin Shaye is also good as Lorriane's friend Elise who also happens to be a psychic with experience in the paranormal. Leigh Whannell (who also wrote the screenplay) and Angus Simpson make welcome contributions as psychic technicians working for Elise. They play the part of tension-relieving humor, but hold their own when the frights ramp up again. In all, we have a very strong cast for this genre that play nice and properly entertain the audience with their talents.

You, sir, are no John Hodgeman
I was afraid in the final act that too much would be shown, invalidating the genre by over-producing what should have perhaps been left to the imagination. Wan, however, excels here as well, making a journey to the spirit realm feel as fluid and realistic as can be, despite the film's small budget. When we were initially greeted by an atrocious opening credits sequence, I was afraid that the story following would be one I couldn't fully get into. By the time final credits had rolled in however, I was forced to recall that I had been on the edge of my seat for the entirety of the film, and jumped out of it on more than a few occasions. The only horror film I can recall that had a similar effect on me had been 2002's The Ring (I remember to this day Agatha So tearing holes in my arms in the film's scarier sequences, so frightening it was), and while there's nothing I've seen to match the terror of Samara I have to give Wan credit for creating the film I didn't think he was able to make. A surprise smash and one I wasn't sure I would rank highly, Insidious manages to come in at #5 for 2011. Far exceeding my few qualifications for excellence, I can't recommend it more highly for people who wish modern horror wasn't so often more of the same Saw and Hostel clones.


jimmygerms said...

Southland Dan approves this message.

Anonymous said...

Jesus, we actually agree on a movie. I loved this picture, for the subtle scares, but mainly for the performances. Wilson and Byrne had a great chemistry and I enjoyed how they reacted like real people. Also, the part where the ghost child hid in the corner and then put Tiny Tim's "tiptoe through the tulips" on the turntable. I even loved how batshit and weird the last act was.