Thursday, August 4, 2011

Insidious [film review]

* Released theatrically in April; now available on DVD & Blu-Ray

The cynic in me would almost think that Entertainment Weekly magazine, a regular read of mine, had some sort of vested interest in the success of Insidious, a horror film made on the cheap (real cheap, at just $1.5 million) that went on to do a highly respectable $53 million in box office receipts. How else to explain how such a completely mediocre-bordering-on-forgettable movie could grab such head scratching accolades as these from the publication: "Insidious...has some of the most shivery and indelible images I've seen in any horror film in decades. Yes, it's that unsettling." (from their review after its theatrical release), and "The year's scariest movie" (trumpeted in the headline attached to a review for the movie's recent DVD/Blu-Ray release)?

The film, which I found to actually be disappointingly light in the "scares" department, is embarrassingly unoriginal, borrowing heavily from its obvious blueprint, Poltergeist, as well as incorporating elements from The Amityville Horror and Paranormal Activity. The writer and director of the latter movie, Oren Peli, produced Insidious, which was directed by James Wan, the man behind Saw. Here, Wan steers consciously clear of the blood and guts that were the calling card of Saw, taking an approach that relies more on manipulating the viewer with psychological terror and cheap scares.

One of the biggest weaknesses of the horror genre, which I must admit is far from my favourite movie genre, is its tiresome formula that almost always guarantees that the first half hour or so of the film will practically be a write-off. The necessary story setup and introductory character exposition rarely produces anything original or dynamic in these type of movies, with the director perhaps throwing the audience a bone with a mildly scary tease or two. Insidious is no exception, as we're introduced to a couple (Josh, played by Patrick Wilson, and Renai, played by Rose Byrne) who have just moved into a new home with their three children. Josh is an overworked teacher and Renai appears to be a professional songwriter. Some oddities begin to occur in the house, such as items going missing, books being knocked off shelves, and strange voices coming through the baby monitor, eventually leading to an incident that sees one the couple's sons having an accident and lapsing into a coma that baffles his doctors. The weirdness in the home escalates, including full-on encounters with ghosts, eventually leading to the family moving once again. A residence change does little to abate the supernatural intrusions into the family's life, which results in the couple bringing in a psychic exorcist named Elise to assist them (after much resistance from Josh, who has dutifully been playing the paranormal skeptic). Elise is played by Lin Shaye, probably best known as the tanned-to-a-crisp next-door neighbour from There's Something About Mary. She assists as a conduit to the spiritual realm and guides Josh to an alternate netherworld known as "The Further", where he tries to retrieve the soul stolen from the couple's still comatose son by evil spirits.

Weak screenwriting is just one of many problems that hamper Insidious, and the man to blame for that, Leigh Whannell, actually has a small role as one of Elise's paranormal investigative assistants. His character and another assistant are supposed to bring some comic relief to the movie, but their back and forth bickering schtick gets old real quick. Whannell also does a lazy job of fully forming the Josh character, who frequently seems oddly detached from the terror his wife is experiencing. Example: despite the fact that Renai becomes absolutely terrified of being in their house alone when all the ghostly shenanigans are in full swing, Josh decides it's a good idea to stay late at school to grade some test papers, work he could easily bring home with him. And on one of those nights he comes home late, his reaction to his wife presenting him with the bed sheet from their comatose son's bed, which has a prominent bloody claw print from one of the evil spirits on it, is one of not so much appropriately reactionary horror as it is just a curiously blank look. The film's score presents another of its problems; normally, a score is one of the things I notice least while watching a movie, but here the incessant onslaught of shrieking violins and dissonant clatter feels overly intrusive and is more effective at grating on the listener's ears than heightening dramatic tension. Coincidentally, the man responsible for dropping the ball here also has a role in the movie. Composer Joseph Bishara, under heavy makeup, plays the primary evil baddie and although his first appearance on screen will scare the daylights out of you (it was the only truly scary moment in the movie), subsequent viewings of the demon-like character had me laughing at how he just looks like Darth Maul with a really bad haircut (the resemblance to the Star Wars character is so similar that I'm amazed George Lucas hasn't sued Insidious' filmmakers yet).

Wan, to his credit, does a fine enough job in wringing as much as he can visually from the million-and-a-half bucks he had to work with because Insidious definitely looks like a movie with a much bigger budget. That's about its only plus, though, as its derivative script, which features an anti-climatic final act capped with a ridiculous and unfulfilling ending, fails to make this a horror thriller of any noteworthy significance. Oh, and the film poster totally sucks, too.

Rating: ★★★★

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