Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Film Review | Insidious, dir. James Wan


The one-sheet for Insidious tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the latest in a line of collaborations between writer Leigh Whannell and director James Wan. Creepy kid? Check. Spooky suburban dwelling? Yep. The suggestion of some sort of supernatural evil?

No?

I'm only pulling your legs: but of course there's the suggestion of some sort of supernatural evil!

Insidious is, first and foremost, a movie "from the makers of Paranormal Activity and SAW," so count among its guiding forces the pair aforementioned, in their usual roles, and found footage aficionado Oren Peli, whose exact involvement in Insidious is impossible to gauge. On board as one of three producers (not to mention an array of co-producers, executive producers, and one lonesome line producer), Peli's fingerprints are all over Insidious, smudged though they are; and in any event, I would not swear that he put them there.


Actually, I would not swear that I particularly care whether we have Peli's involvement in Insidious to thank for, for instance, its basic premise - which is to say the haunting of a person rather than a house - or the foreboding creaks and rumbles which are in the first half of the film the primary source of scares, because Paranormal Activity, if you can cast your minds back to a time two whole Halloweens ago, wasn't exactly an original film in itself. The Blair Witch Project meets Poltergeist was and still is, I think, appropriate shorthand for a film which more than anything else demonstrated the cinema-going public's dissatisfaction with SAW VI. Paranormal Activity was ingeniously executed, technically speaking, and narratively surprisingly strong... but no, not at all new, or even particularly innovative.

Nor is Insidious. It, too, is an example of craft over art, and cleverness before invention; of a practiced, indeed accomplished eye where one might wish for vision.

You mustn't mistake me: I had a great time with at least half of Insidious -- and the rest was tolerable enough, if utterly at odds with itself. You should absolutely see this movie. But whatever you do, don't see it expecting anything you haven't seen before.


Insidious is the very definition of a film of two halves. The first part - thankfully the more substantial part - is basically Paranormal Activity without the found footage gimmick. Renai and Josh Lambert are just settling into a nice new place with their three children, Dalton, Foster and a nameless baby; but never mind the latter two. You see, early on, Dalton - that's the creepy kid on the one-sheet - ends up in an inexplicable coma. The lovely Rose Byrne's Renai takes to caring for Dalton full-time, while Josh (Watchmen's Patrick Wilson) shirks his share of the burden by working late a lot. But as he snoozes over tests and essays, Renai becomes increasingly convinced that an uninvited guest has taken residence at the Lambert ranch. Someone - or (gasp!) something - which means her and hers harm. 

It's all so very familiar that you may wonder if you haven't somehow seen this film before. But no, you haven't -- I mean, unless you have. Anyway, never mind the narrative; it's nothing to write home about. Not even to your great-aunt, and she hasn't seen a film since The Exorcist scared her half to death back in the silly 70s. What works in the first half of Insidious - and I should say it works tremendously well - is the unbearable sense of tension wrought from Wan's suggestion of an unseen but ever-present threat. The director takes no time at all to establish this excruciating atmosphere, and finds ample assistance in composer Joseph Bishara, whose lovingly throwback score - though overbearing by modern standards - does as much to dictate exactly where on our chairs we should sit as Wan.


Had Insidious simply sustained this state of affairs for the duration, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. However, in its second phase, Insidious takes... we'll call it an odd turn, ending up somewhere between Dead Silence - the delightfully daft puppet horror Wan and Whannell last collaborated on - and The Frighteners; both of which films I'll be the first to admit adoring. But spliced onto an hour approaching the exquisite in its implication of some unspeakable evil lurking just off-camera? Uh...

So it is that Insidious ends a very different film than it begins, with Lipstick-Face Demon, Long Haired Fiend and Doll Girls #1 and #2 (I kid you not) prancing about in "the further" like painted bloody ponies while a man who's been beside the point for the duration stumbles about shadowy, pseudo-Silent Hill sets dodging monsters because he's secretly a total monster-dodger. He is, you hear? Poor Rose Byrne, who holds the rest of film on her heroin-chic shoulders, doesn't even get a look-in.

Oh: there's a twist, too. And it's terrible.

Still, I had my fun with Insidious. I just wish the filmmakers had had perhaps a little less...

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