Sunday, October 30, 2011

Halloween Reviews: INSIDIOUS (2011)

The producers of "Paranormal Activity" and James Wan, the writer and director of the first "Saw" join hands to update the haunted house horror genre, taking a page (several, actually) out of Tobe Hooper's "Poltergeist". While not particularly fresh, it gets the job done very well, regardless of the fact that it borrows plenty from the aforementioned classic.

The plot is simple, but makes room for several twists. First off we meet the family. Renai (Rose Byrne), Josh (Patrick Wilson) and their two sons, Dalton (Ty Simpkins) and Foster (Andrew Astor) have recently moved into a new house, but their lives take a dark turn when one day their older son Dalton, falls into a coma, for no apparent reason. Even the doctors can't find anything wrong with him. Three months later, when they bring the comatose boy home, weird phenomenons begin to manifest in the house. Or, should I say, paranormal activities ? Renai convinces Josh they should move into another house and the husband agrees, so they move. But, the supernatural events continue to show up in the new house as well. Suspecting the fact that it has something to do with Dalton's condition, Josh's mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) contacts a psychic friend of hers, Elise (Lin Shaye) who tries to help the young couple find out what's happening. I won't go into too much detail except to say that Dalton is not just in a coma. He has been taken deep into a supernatural realm, called The Further, by a malevolent entity which means to hold on to his soul. The plot does reserve some twists, but I will not reveal them here.

Like I said, "Insidious" is almost entirely made up of generic haunted house conventions made popular by "Poltergeist", also lifting some plot elements from the 1982 movie, like the team of two assistants Elise brings to the house to investigate the phenomenons. Still, the director does manages to deliver a decent amount of thrills. I rolled my eyes at the first moments of the baby monitor scene (which made me think of "Signs" for a moment), but it did make me jump. You'll see that the jump scares are old-fashioned and predictable, with sudden loud notes of music sharply exploding whenever such a moment occurs on-screen, but they are ruthlessly effective. And another thing that keeps "Insidious" from failing is the atmosphere. There's a lot of gloom and dread, perfectly sustained by the desaturated and dark cinematography (one of Wan's directorial trademarks) and the above average acting by the entire cast. I was a little annoyed by the attempts to squeeze in clumsy comic relief in the interactions between Elise's two aides (one of them played by writer Leigh Whannell). It's cheesy and unfunny. Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg managed to work out something amazing with "Poltergeist", mixing humor with horror, a formula which simply doesn't work in "Insidious" because it's not established from the get-go. It's just thrown in suddenly and I feel the movie could have done without it.

I was, however, impressed by James Wan's ability to squeeze so much out of a small budget ($1M). The lighting and camera-work generate a lot of the creepy atmosphere, without the use of elaborate art direction and expensive visual effects. It suggests more than it shows and seeing the ghosts as actual people, with a touch of ghastly make-up, instead of glossy CGI, is a big plus. The demon Josh confronts at the end to save his son is the curious result of a blend of gothic imagery and make-up design that evoke a menacing figure, somewhat similar to Nightcrawler from the X-Men and Darth Maul from "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace". Whether or not the similarity is intentional, the design feels appropriately insidious and the creature is creatively established as a dangerous and seemingly invincible villain that we can easily fear.

It's easy to think of "Insidious" as a roller-coaster ride, because it sort of is. The thrills and scares are relentless. Some might view the third act as a weak attempt to turn the movie into something a bit more action-oriented. It sort of is just that, but it's not a cop-out. There will also be those who might be discouraged by the all-too-familiar plot elements, but the director and writer show a lot of respect for the material. I assure you, it's a ride worth taking, at least once, alone, in a dark room.

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