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

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .