From the makers of Paranormal Activity, Insidious is the terrifying story of a family who, shortly after moving, discovers that dark spirits have possessed their home and that their son has inexplicably fallen into a coma. Trying to escape the haunting and save their son, they move again only to realize that it was not their house that was haunted.
eyelights: the soundtrack. Lin Shaye. the direction.
eyesores: the soundtrack. the clichés. the trite dialogues. the artificial familial interactions. Rose Byrne.
“You don’t understand. I’m scared for Dalton. I’m scared of this house. There’s something wrong with this place. I’m not imagining it. I can feel it. It’s… it’s like a sickness. Ever since we’ve moved in, everything’s just gone wrong.”
‘Poltergeist’ x ‘The Amityville Horror’ = ‘Insidious’
‘Insidious’ is a ghost story that had come highly recommended to me by a couple of friends whose tastes I respect. When I sat down to watch it, I had no idea that it was a ghost story, however: based on the artwork and the title, I assumed that it had something to do with an evil child, à la ‘The Omen‘ or ‘The Bad Seed’. I had originally planned to make it an integral part of my October slate of spookshows but had to reconsider at the last minute.
Yet, despite the disappointment, I was able to enjoy ‘Insidious’ – for what it is.
The thing with ‘Insidious’ is that it’s got great ideas and a pretty solid director at the helm, but it falls prey to some weak acting, trite dialogues and a lackluster last act that doesn’t fully deliver on the rest of the picture. Thankfully, screenwriter Leigh Whannell was wise enough to make himself a list of horror film clichés as reference so as to avoid them while writing the screenplay. If not for this, I suspect that the picture would have been bogged down in conventions.
Part of the blame, of course, rests on director James Wan’s shoulders. While he has become quite experienced in the horror genre since blasting onto the scene with the grossly-overrated ‘Saw’, having directed and/or produced about a dozen horror films since 2000, there were a few instances in ‘Insidious’ where he inadvertently made trite choices. Thankfully, although his influences were sometimes unmistakable, he put them together in ways that were relatively inspired.
For instance, I rather enjoyed the way in which he made sinister beings/ghosts appear with no forewarning, or how events would transpire with no clear foreshadowing. In so doing, the film quickly set up the notion that there were no rules and that we should expect the unexpected. Um… and, alas, the expected, given that many of the scares (like the rocking horse that rocks with no one on it, or even the forms materializing out of nowhere) have been over-used to the point of ridicule.
In a similar vein, the soundtrack was expertly crafted to scare the bejeezus out of its audience and did so admirably well. However, the film depended far too much on this soundtrack for its mood and scares, blasting bumps at the simplest of moments, skittering about around the room (a surround sound system is crucial to watch this film), that sort of thing. Similarly, the score was good, but it borrowed heavily from Herrmann’s ‘Psycho’, what with its strident strings.
There was one great use of music and it was when Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” played in the house, while Renai was alone. It’s a simple scene, but it marked one of the more effective ones of the picture, with Wan going for mood above all else. The way the camera traveled about, giving us a first-person perspective on what was transpiring, combined with the peculiar music and a few unexpected visuals, made for quite the eerie scene.
The strength of the picture is by far the second act, which showed things unspooling in peculiar ways. The beginning, however, started things off on a shaky foot: between the weak performances, the lame dialogues and artificial, Hallmark-type, family dynamics it was hard to appreciate that Wan and Whannell were trying to introduce us to our protagonists and attempt to establish a certain normalcy about their daily goings on. Loved the recipe, not the ingredients.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
Where I was the most disappointed, however, was with the final act; the build-up was excellent, but the ending left a lot to be desired.
Firstly, I had expected The Further to be harder to get to, and also a bit more imaginative than it was: it was merely dark with scary people in it – in a house, no less. Here’s one instance where imagination is the only possible limitation, when almost anything could have been put to screen (à la ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’). After all, no one knows what this so-called “The Further” looks like. And yet… no.
I also would have loved to see the Darth Sidious-like demon more. Not necessarily in full light, to see all the details, just more screen time. Mind you, I thought that he was a primary threat, what with his intentions and the fact that he was the closest to getting through from The Further. But the film didn’t go down that route: the confrontation with the demon mostly consisted of it crawling along the wall never to be seen again. Inexplicably. ‘Twas but a red herring.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
But, for all the flaws and faux pas that were sprinkled about along the way, if anything really spoiled the picture for me, it had to be the caliber of the performances.
In any movie, it’s important to have a character that one finds relatable. To this end, they are frequently written as “every-man” and “every-woman”. However, to properly connect, they have to be credible, they have to feel real. This is even more critical in a horror film, where we need to share their terror, or fear for their safety. But rarely does a horror film serve up anything but frightfully bad performance – or, at best, middling ones.
Sadly, it’s also the case with ‘Insidious’:
- Rose Byrne, in particular, annoyed the crap out of me: she looked like she had just come out of the dentist’s chair, and had been Novocained to death… for pretty much the whole movie. At no point did she appear to incarnate her character (nor did her miniscule physique help me believe that she was a full-grown mom). Frankly, being one of the leads, it would have been essential to get a stronger actress. She’s cute, but that’s about it.
- Patrick Wilson wasn’t excellent either, affecting that bland expression that he frequently does, making his characters seem somewhat alien, emotionless, unrelatable .It’s funny because he was pretty good in ‘Hard Candy‘, but the more I see him the less impressed I am with his ability. Between him and Byrne, the couple made my brain hurt and prevented me from really buying into the story.
- Their kids weren’t stellar, either. Oh, sure, some people will come to their defense and say that kid actors aren’t usually very good. Fine. Maybe they aren’t. But some of them are (case-in-point, Nathan Gamble), and maybe Hollywood should simply focus on the few than can pull it off. The rest of them should just stay in school. You know what happens to child actors anyway, right? Stay in school, kids…
- There was this duo that played a pair of paranormal scientists. I have no idea who they are, but they should not have made it on screen. They were supposed to be quirky, but they were so ineptly portrayed that what probably was envisioned as something akin to the team from ‘Poltergeist‘, but ended up being a failed rendition of the ‘Ghostbusters‘ crew. The lines and parts were decent, but these were merely decent amateurs; actors who could bridge the gap between comedy and drama might have helped matters considerably.
The only performance worth noting in the whole picture is that of Lin Shaye as Elise, the medium. I suspect that the part was also influenced by ‘Poltergeist’, even though she doesn’t bear much resemblance to Zelda Rubinstein, but Lin made Elise seem this side of insane, making careful, thoughtful and confident – not flaky. I’m not saying that this is an award-winning performance, but she did the part justice, and in light of the competition she basically overshadowed the rest of the cast.
And who could ever forget the bizarre gas mask scene?
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
There’s one thing that bothers me about the picture, and that I don’t recall being explained at any point: If the boy was the one being haunted, not the house, then why weren’t there inexplicable things happening at the hospital during the three months that he was there?
I mean, I understand why the filmmakers didn’t do this: otherwise we would know right from the onset that whatever is happening is linked to Dalton, not the house – and this was the big twist. So, clearly the filmmakers decided to make it start when he returned from the hospital.
But it doesn’t really make sense, does it? And if it does, somehow, does it remain unexplained?
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
Anyway, for all its unoriginality ‘Insidious’ is an expertly-crafted pastiche of influences. I wouldn’t say that it the film du siècle, but it is notable for being relatively effective – something many horror can’t boast. Would I recommend it? With reservations. Would I watch it again? For sure. But I’m not sure how much mileage it will get. And I don’t feel the need to see the sequel. Not quite yet. I’m not sure that it could ever tie up the loose ends in the first film and hold its own on top of that.
Post scriptum: Fans may rail that I pretty much covered every actor but omitted Barbara Hershey. Well, she’s utterly forgettable here, so consider her forgotten. I have no further comment.
Date of viewing: October 13, 2013