Monday, October 8, 2012

Movie Review: "Insidious" by David Pretty

The title of this film is actually a perfect way to describe the extent in which the producers rip off a host of superior movies.  After an atmospheric and effective first half, director James Wan (of Saw fame) follows through on his premise but, in doing so, leads the film into increasingly derivative and and ineffectual waters.

Horror film fans have seen this premise a hojillion times before: work-a-day family, looking for a "fresh start" moves into a new house with their kids and almost immediately weird shirt starts happening.  What makes Insidious so frustrating is how this hackneyed set up is made fresh in its execution.  Wan gives us some unearthly spine-jangling voices via baby monitor, phantasmal B&E's and creepy now-you-see-it-now-you-don't figures loitering around in the backdrop.  All of this takes place in a house who's door hinges have apparently never tasted a drop of oil since they were installed.    

Wan lifts liberally from other sources, but at least his thefts are effective.  He cribs hair-raising musical cues straight from The Exorcist and nouvelle mom Rose Byrne's exploration of the house's unsettling attic evokes shades of Ellen Burstyn's delve nearly forty years earlier.  He also manages to out-paranormal Paranormal Activity without so much as a single frame of listless "found footage".  Quite the opposite: his set-ups are evocative and arresting.

Mercifully, at the thirty-eight minute mark, besieged mom Renai (Rose Byrne) tells her husband Josh (Patrick Wilson) that she wants to "leave this house".  With Paranormal Activity serving as precedent, screenwriter Leigh Whannell has to come up with an excuse to transplant the spooks.  So, although the family does indeed relocate to a new home, the spectral occurrences actually accelerate.  I always thought that I was alone in thinking that Tiny Tim's "Tip-Toe Through The Tulips" was the stuff of nightmares, but I'm heartened to learn that I'm not alone.  

Even as the, homages continued to pile up, I was still on board with the film.  Poltergeist was next on the inspirational hit-parade, as an eccentric older woman and her paranormal investigative team attempt to make sense of everything.  Coincidently, this is also the point where the wheels start to fall off the film.  Although the producers deserve a nod for coming up with an original cause for all the spooky, the main conceit of the story (embodied by the concept of "The Further") is so airy-fairy that it starts the drag the low-key, atmospheric first half of the film kicking and screaming into the realm of high fantasy.

An incessant drip of idiocy starts to chip away at the script's edifice.  A flash-sketch is compiled so quickly and expertly that it feels like a gag lifted from an Airplane movie.  Josh, who's been nothing but conciliatory throughout the entire film, suddenly becomes obstinate for no reason other then to pad the film's run time.  The Zelda Rubinstein substitute inexplicably dons a prop mask apparently left over from the remake of My Bloody Valentine.

When the "special power" of the husband is revealed and the script starts mining Nightmare on Elm Street territory, every bit of terrestrial tension drains out of the film.  By the time a battle in another plane of existence starts physical shaking the foundations of the house, I began to wish that I was watching some of the film's many sources of inspiration instead.  The obligatory false, not to mention ludicrous, ending pretty much kills it altogether.

Sometimes original ideas just don't translate well to the big screen.  Still, I have to give Insidious partial points for having the brains to recognize time-honored scare techniques and making some sort of effort to design a new threat and, subsequently, a new mythos.

It's just a pity that Wan and company didn't realize that by following through on their premise they'd end up delivering a tonally uneven picture that marches blindly towards an increasingly goofy finale.

Tilt: down.  

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