For those expecting a review of Captain America, you won’t get it until a few days later as I’ve yet to see the film. That’s why, for now, I’ve decided to review a film which I should have seen in the theaters back in April. That movie is Insidious. Yes, I am 3 months delayed in my review. But like I always say, better late than never, though it would be way better if I could fix this habit of mine.
Alright, Insidious. As usual, this review will be divided into The Good and The Bad.
My friends told me that this movie is one of the scariest films to have been released in recent history. I agree. The last films to genuinely scare the crap out of me were REC, and The Crazies. Both employed different techniques in achieving their scares. REC had the intensity and brutality of the cinema verite style to scare the audience, while The Crazies used some good-old fashion characterization: despite their relatively simple characterization, you’d feel empathy for the protagonist and his wife. You connect with them, and you’ll feel scared for them when they are subjected to the horror happening on the screen. Oh, and both films were gory too (though not to the extent of Eli Roth’s absolutely dreadful Hostel).
The film relied on tension: tension through the desaturated color scheme, off-framed composition and camera angles, the play of shadows and light, parlor tricks (similar to Poltergeist), glimpses of the ghosts (though this was one was pretty problematic in the latter half), and surreal imagery which evokes images from a David Lynch film. The film has no gore, but it has some creepy ghost make-up effects. As for the human element, we have a family whose father figure seems to be slowly drifting away from the family, a wife left alone in the house filled with not so friendly ghosts, and kids subjected to supernatural threats: particularly a baby girl being harassed by a malevolent spirit, and a boy who slips into a “coma” and is attracting spirits around him.
It is so refreshing to see a film nowadays relying on some of the oldest tricks in horror filmmaking and not to resort to shlock and splatter. It is more surprising to know that the filmmakers responsible for this are director James Wan, writer Leigh Whannell, and (not so surprisingly) producer Oren Peli (director of the recent Paranormal Activity). Wan and Whannell are known for their Saw franchise, but Peli’s influence can also be seen throughout the film. It’s the film’s subtle horror touches that stand out: doors opening by themselves (oldest trick in the book, but a great trick nonetheless), a rocking horse, and shadows. In the hands of a mediocre director, these touches would not have been as effective.
To see Wan and Whannell a practically goreless film and still scare the audience shitless shows us that these guys are actually good filmmakers. Wan’s framing of the picture is quite discomforting due to the breathing space created, thus highlighting the background. The character may be in focus, but because of the extra space, one expects something to appear in the background: the audience sees it, but the character does not. And that’s just in daytime. Once it goes dark, it’s unbearable: every shadow becomes a potential ghost just waiting to jump at you.
Acting wise, Patrick Wilson and Rose Bynre do a good job playing the couple. You’d feel sorry for Rose Byrne left all alone in a haunted house. The same goes with Patrick Wilson when he finally breaks down due to his helplessness in the situation. Horror veteran Lin Shaye, who horror fans would recognize as the literature teacher in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, does what her role demands of her: play the psychic.
You’ll realize that I’m not making any mention of the script. That’s because this film’s script is part of…
The Bad (spoilers…nah, you’ve probably seen the movie already…if not, you’ve been warned)
The material is quite weak, but not to the extent of calling it mediocre. It is weak in the sense that it was dangerously treading on a ludicrous subject matter (astral projection), the expository dialogue by the psychic ruined the mystery surrounding the film, and it had an unnecessary twist ending.
When it comes to horror, I usually prefer the Lovecraftian fear of the unknown. We fear things we do not understand. The same goes with the film in the first hour: we have no idea why the family is being harassed by ghosts. We have no idea what the kid saw in the attic. We do not know the cause of some apparent poltergeist activity in the house. Because we do not know why these are happening, we are scared of it. But then the psychic had to do some expository speech on astral projection, the “Further”, and how this attracts ghosts to the family. Wow, thanks a lot for conveniently explaining the mystery and demystifying it, lessening the impact of the scares. I noticed that their impact after the exposition lessened, and that the director had to resort to cheap scares and surrealist imagery, which admittedly was interesting, but it felt like it belonged to another movie, namely the films of David Lynch.
Things become more problematic in the 3rd Act, when Patrick Wilson’s character projects himself and tries to retrieve his son from “the Further”. Here we see the ghosts (in shadow, thank goodness), and the demon harassing the son (who looks a lot like Darth Maul…wait, what?!). That part almost ruined the film for me. In the first two-thirds, we see glimpses, I repeat, GLIMPSES of the demon through his silhouette, bloody hand marks, and half his face (thank goodness that part was just a second long). But the third act had to show the demon in its entirety. Take note that while it wasn’t shown in full lighting, the fact is that you’re seeing a guy wearing some goat leg prosthetics and make-up which reminds us too much of Darth Maul. It just ruins the illusion, and risks replacing the horror with comedy.
Finally, oh my goodness, that unnecessary twist at the end. For once, I would like to watch a contemporary horror film which has a relatively happy ending. Believe it or not, there is a way to still make a pretty heavy ending while still making it a “happy” one. Take The Shining for example; sure Jack Nicholson and the black guy dies, but at least the mother and the kid escapes from the hotel. The complication is resolved, but the ending is still quite heavy.
Instead, Insidious had to end with Patrick Wilson being possessed by a former ghost who harassed him as a kid, with the implication that he will end up killing everyone in the house at the end. For goodness sakes: I spent an hour and forty minutes hoping for this family’s problems to be resolved, only for the film to end where everybody dies in the end?! What kind of douchebaggery is this? *sigh* I know the world is going to shit nearer and nearer each day, but that all more shows the importance of things such as movies, most especially horror film. Sure, people in horror films confront forces beyond the material world. But wouldn’t it be uplifting, and inspiring, to know that despite the otherworldy attacks, us worldly beings are able to resist that threat, that despite knowing the existence of dragons, we also know that we could defeat them?
The film’s direction was a dual-edged sword. On one hand, we have a terrifying first half due to the tension it had established. On the other hand, the latter half just disposes of the build-up created by the first half and opted for a more standard climax. Mind you, the directing is solid, and for Wan to be able to dance around the problematic script and still make a pretty scary third act (albeit user weaker scare tactics) shows us his skill as a director. However, like I said time and time again, good direction can only do so much; the film’s mediocre script is what ultimately prevents this film from being a contemporary horror classic. This is a flawed horror film, but an interesting experiment in tension-building. If you are willing to forgive the third act’s lack of genuine scares, and that unnecessary twist ending, this film is definitely for you. Horror buffs would definitely enjoy this one.
Buy on original if possible. If not, a decent torrent copy would suffice (come on, the film made money!).
3.5 stars out of 5.
Can’t wait to watch Captain America!