Skip to main content

Into the Further you go.

Insidious
(2010)

(SPOILERS) Right from the off, Saw duo James Wan (director) and Leigh Whannell (writer) clearly intend to embody the most recognisable conventions of the classic frightener. Fraught strings accompany a roving camera around a darkened house, up until the point where the viewer is granted the briefest glimpse of … a disturbing face illuminated by a candle. For the first 40 minutes or so Insidious continues in this vein, laden with atmosphere, lurking menace, and sudden shocks. But then it unravels, falling back on sub-Poltergeist investigations, botch-job explanations, and an uninspired exploration of an underdeveloped alternate realm.


There’s an awful lot that seems familiar here in fact. Which can be a blessing to a genre that relies on the tried-and-tested, but it can also be tiresomely derivative if one isn’t careful. Insidious borrows liberally from both Poltergeist and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but Wan is unable to summon an ounce of their iconic lustre.


Initially, he is able to effectively plays with expectations. The Lambert family (Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne and three kids) has moved into a new house and, lo and behold, it appears to be haunted. When one of their children, Dalton (Ty Simpson, so good in last year’s Iron Man Three), mysteriously enters a coma we know something’s up but his parents seem oblivious. Yet this is a post-Scream horror (albeit not a self-reflexive one) where the filmmakers hopefully know heroes can’t be too slow to twig there are supernatural nasties about. In the case of Byrne’s Renai anyway. Wilson’s Josh is more resistant, but we’ll discover there’s good reason for this (I assumed his reticence was leading to a reveal that he was having an affair, but it never comes).


All the signs of a poltergoost are there; a box of sheet music mysteriously disappears and then shows up again, books end up on the floor moments after being placed on a shelf, a red handprint appears on the sickly child’s bed sheet, there are assorted ghostly apparitions, creaking doors and darkened shuffling attics. Joseph Bishara’s score greedily grasps every opportunity to pile on the shock tactics, any time a half-seen figure materialises.  A particularly effective sequence involves whatever the hell is making those sounds Renai can hear on the baby monitor. But then, as noted, Wan and Whannell pull off their front-loaded surprise (except if you’ve seen the movie poster). The dumb parents don’t follow the usual script, regardless of common sense. Oh no. Renai announces, “I’m scared of this house” and persuades Josh (who is experiencing seemingly unmotivated visions) that they should up and leave.


Of course, no sooner have they done so than Renai realises they’ve brought the haunting with them. Josh’s mum (Barbara Hershey) tells of a particularly spooky dream where a figure appeared in the corner of Dalton’s room (Whannell was likely plundering David Lynch). Of course, it’s slightly less terrifying to find this demon bears a strong resemblance to Darth Maul. But it isn’t until Lin Shaye’s psychic investigator Elise arrives that Insidious starts to lose its way. She’s accompanied by a duo of comedy geeks, Specs (Whannell himself) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) and she pays off the mystery with some really phoney exposition (“It’s not your house that’s haunted. It’s your son”; but what do I know, it’s the poster tag line).  When a writer introduces his trump card with a line like “Have you ever heard of astral projection?” you know you’re in trouble, and the realisation of Whannell has up his sleeve is decidedly deflating. Not only is there a lacklustre name for his other place; the Further, “a dark realm filled with the tortured souls of the dead”. Uh-huh. But there’s a reveal of some really in-your-face drawings Dalton festooned his bedroom wall with, that mom and dad somehow failed to notice, showing him astrally projecting and… that ever-so nasty demon chap. Doh!


The communication session is a bit of a botch too. The odd quirky moment aside (Elise wears a gas mask that somehow facilitates interaction with the other place) Wan has gone astray now, flooding his stage with unatmospheric lighting (not a patch on Poltergeist), no doubt fully aware that tiny Dalton throwing investigators around a room looks very silly. The revelation that Josh himself was once an astral traveller, preyed upon by a nasty demon all his own, is reasonably effective. But his trip into the Further is entirely lacking, with a one-note confrontation conjuring the memory of Robert Englund’s forays into unsuspecting teenagers’ dreamscapes. There is even a moment where, having rescued Dalton, Josh does the classic “I’ll catch you up” thing beloved of horror movie clichés, so forget that post-Scream awareness thing. Wan even throws in the de rigueur oldie put to sinister use (Tiptoe Through The Tulips by Tiny Tim).


And then he pulls a Brian De Palma, with a twist ending I probably should have seen coming but didn’t. During the ‘70s that would probably have been it, but fast forward four years and a second sequel is on the way for this minor cash cow. Byrne, Wilson, Shaye and Hershey all perform commendably, unified in their attempts to breathe life into hoary old dialogue. But it’s Wan’s aptitude for suspense and staging during the first half that deserves the most credit. Still, given that the communication session is the closest Insidious gets to an action scene and it’s also the least effectively handled, it gives me slight pause as to whether he can come up with the goods for Fast and Furious 7.


***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…