Saturday, 20 October 2012

Schlocktober Reviews: Insidious


Insidious came out about a year ago, and I'd heard good things about it. It didn't sound like something I'd see in theatres (most horror movies are total renters for me) but the buzz around it had me want to check it out. Until, that is, I found out that it was by Leigh Wennell and James Wan, the same guys who did the Saw series. Then my interest fell into the realm somewhere between "meh" and "fuck this movie in its virgin ass with a 17'' dildo".

As you can probably tell, I'm not a fan of the Saw movies Or the Hostel movies either. Not because I object to TorturePorn . (Let's face it, my favorite horror movies are the 70s Dario Argento films, probably the closest thing to a definitive example of the subgenre you could ever find.) It's just that I consider them really poorly done.  All quick cuts, and twisting angles straight out of a music video. In fact, quick tangent to already occuring tangent, Nine Inch Nails did a series of banned-from-TV videos featuring mechanized traps tearing into people back in the 90s. So the novelty isn't really there for me, leaving just a bunch of increasingly over the top and ridiculous plot twists that strain credulity to far beyond the breaking point. But I digress.

But over the last week I've heard some good things about Sinister, the new film by them, and a lot of the stuff involved favorable comparisons to Insidious. So, being the diligent and dilletante horror fan that I am, I put aside my compunctions and decide to finally watch the damn thing. And the damnedest part of the damned thing is, it's not bad.

Actually, its really rather good.

The film pics up with very familar horror trope as the Lambert family moves into a new house. On the onset they're fairly normal; the dad Josh (played by Patrick Wilson) is a teacher while the Renai (played by Rose "I'm Talkin' bout my Asshole" Byrne), is a stay at home mom who's also on her piano compositions.  The kids, middle child Foster, baby , and oldest Dalton don't come off as schmaltzy, or smartasses or fake. They, like the rest of the family, come off as normal, dare I say even likeable. You find yourself actually caring about these people, which makes it all the more traumatic when shit goes down later.

We're introduced to the Lamberts in a hectic morning scene that everybody can relate to. The baby's crying, the kids are fighting, Josh's rushing off to work and Renai's trying to keep seem manner of order and unpack at the same time. Amidst all this is the slow build up signs that something is not right with the house. Objects go missing or mysteriously fall over. Strange soft whispers are heard vaguely from far away. The thing is though, that the characters are all obviously busy that their dismissal or ignorance of these things doesn't come off as stupid, but understandable, even rational.

All this changes one night when Dalton, exploring the attic, screams and falls off a ladder, bumping his head. Renai consoles him and scolds him for being where she shouldn't belong, then puts him to bed. That night he falls into a coma. The doctor's can't explain what's happening or what caused this. It's a mystery that looms over the family as they now take care of their torpored son. It's a tribute to both the actors and the material that these scenes resonate on an emotional level, and you actually care about these people in their moments of grief and anguish and resilience. You sympathize as they go through this tragedy. (Remember the last time you did that with a horror movie made in the last ten years? No? Yeah I didn't think so.)
Throughout this first section of the family the horror is all low-key, events happening at the peripheral of the narrative that slowly build up the eerieness bit by bit. Soon creepy, incoherent whispers can be heard over the baby monitor. While Renai's speaking with Foster he off-handedly asks if they can keep the door closed; when she asks him why he says that he doesn't like when Dalton walks around at night. There's even a very effective jump scare (a la Ghostwatch) where a stranger's face as a creepy face is seen in the nursery room window. The house security alarm goes off in the dead of night, Josh investigates, finding the front door wide open. He checks the house. No one else is there. Renai is attacked by a pale dark clad man in her bedroom and when he disappears she rushes to Dalton's bed, finding a bloody imprint of a hand upon the sheets.

Desperate, she resorts to something drastic, something that barely any other horror movie protagonist has ever tried before: she pleads with her husband to move to a different house. And equally as strange and bizarre, he listens.

It's a bit of common sense that seems self-evident in any other genre but it really shows how smart the filmmakers are here. (Yes, hell has surely frozen over cause I'm praising the makers of Saw. Bite me.) These guys have obviously seen a lot of horror movies, the know the genres, and there's ample evidence here that they've seen the classics and know the pifalls and cliches. More importantly though, they actually try to subvert the common tropes and not in a "if we reference them as they're happening it makes them not as cliche" type of way as with the Scream franchise. (Surprisingly not a fan of those movies either but let's save that for another time shall we?) No, these are smart guys trying to do something comfortably similar but noticeably different in the long stagnant horror genre. They approach the events in a way that makes sense, and for the most part it shows.

However the character's genre saviness here is misplaced Moving, as you've no doubt guessed, doesn't work. It'd be a short, anticlimatic film if that was all it took. No the move to a different house happens around the half-way mark, for we're not dealing with a simple case of a haunted house. The other half of the movie contains what can only be described as all manner of fucked up shit, of which I can provide but a sampling. Child ghosts. Poltergeists. Psychics. Seances. Astral projections. Demons. Secret long buried back stories. And to top it off a spiritual trip to a werid Otherworld called the Further that's part Silent Hill and part John Carpenter's The Fog. Oh yeah and it also contains the creepiest picture drawing scene this side of Dorian Gray. (Literary references in a horror movie review for the win! Yes kiddies there's more to Schlocktober reviews than profanity, YouTube clips and parentheses.)

The second half of the movie is most definitely the payoff to the slowly building eerie from before. It goes into a controlled overdrive of psychotic monstrosity and dread with all the stopping power of a mack truck. There's more than enough well executed ideas here to last ten horror movies, and even when they're not 100% original they're still very well executed...for the most part. The sheer volume of events in the last half bit seems almost as if the filmmakers are throwing tons of shit against the wall and seeing what sticks. Some of it falters, either through complete ridiculousness or just not being given proper time to fully develop. For instance, there's a quick, very subtle scene that shows not only how a few of the ghosts perished but also hints that this was what created the strange dark gateway in the old house that began the whole mess. But this is only hinted, never revealed outright and it's a shame that more time wasn't spent on this idea. However there's more that works here than doesn't and the final climatic battle for young Dalton's soul is both suitably epic and fittingly terrifying. 

This is a great film for any fan of the horror genre, especially those who are sick of the endless remakes and crappy torture porn iterations. It's original, it's fun and at times it's genuinely scary to boot. I only wish Wennel and Wan would work this into a movie series instead of the Saw films. But if wishes were fishes, I'd a fisherman or some shit? Wait that metaphor doesn't work at all. Ah fuck it. I need a drink. See ya next time.