Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Insidious (James Wan, 2010)

Screenwriter Leigh Whannel and director James Wan became Hollywood's go to names in the horror genre by being the team behind the first Saw film. The series went on to be the eight hundred pound horror gorilla of the pre-Halloween release weekend. For seven years, Saw dominated the box office heading into every single Halloween.

Whatever one may feel about the series, the original film was definitely something new, original and unusual when it was released. It was also pretty damned good. I enjoyed that first film thoroughly. It was well made, the performances were strong enough to push past some of the more ridiculous elements, the story was engaging and the concept was interesting. I jumped off the band wagon after the third film was released, because it was clear they weren't going to be able to maintain or return to the quality of the first film.

The Saw series was unceremoniously knocked from it's pedestal as the King of Halloween horror by Paranormal Activity. Orin Peli came out of nowhere with his small haunted house opus. It was an extremely successful exercise in suspense and stream lined, budget film making. It was also one of the most fun and awesome theater going experiences I've had since I was a little kid. My love for that original film is no secret, and the sequel may have been a better film than the first, even if it lost a little of the magic of the buzz that had surrounded the first film and helped create such an intoxicating audience experience.

Insidious brings these three new hopes for the horror genre together, with Whannel writing, Wan directing and Peli producing. It doesn't quite live up to the promise that might suggest to some people, but this isn't an altogether unsuccessful endeavor either. It's basically, a fun, silly, even somewhat scary film that recalls the tone of some of the fun, lesser appreciated supernatural horror films of the seventies, and attempts to take some of the tropes of a few of the sub-genres, mash them together and add in some new pieces. There are a number of things in the film that work really well, and some things that don't, but these three set out to do something a little different, and though they succeeded in doing that much, they weren't able to completely pull it together.

The film begins with a young family moving into a new home. Rose Byrne (recently of the very funny Bridesmaids) plays the young mother struggling to find time to work on her songwriting in between taking care of three young children and running a household. Patrick Wilson (who starred opposite Ellen Page in the phenomenal Hard Candy, number twenty on the list of my favorite films of the last decade, and a film I can't suggest emphatically enough) plays the father. The film starts out with a pretty standard haunted house set-up, that's definitely effective in it's execution. It succeeds in creating good suspense and giving the viewer a sense of dread about what's going to be around the next corner or how things will escalate next. It employs some great jump scares at it gets rolling and since I have no objection to a well placed and well executed jump scare, I found it not only effective, but fun and a good way to get the audience engaged, while setting up their expectations for what the rest of the film is going to be. They're not "fake scares" either, they are germane to the story and the narrative, instead of being a broom falling out of a closet, a camping jumping into frame or some other cheap crap. I was honestly shocked at how well the film started out.

When the film reaches the point in every haunted house film where one of the characters (Rose Byrne, in this case) begins demanding that they get out of the house, it succeeds in doing something different and subverting the expectations of any person who is well versed in the haunted house genre. Quickly following the films subversion of our expectations, it changes track pretty radically, and becomes a completely different film than the first act suggests it will be. I'm not giving anything away by saying that this isn't a conventional haunted house movie and is tied to another variety of horror sub-genre, because the trailer basically gives that all away. The trailer didn't give away the whole kit and caboodle, so I wasn't completely prepared for where the film went and it kept me guessing for a few minutes, which is to it's credit. Lynne Shaye (sister of former New Line Studio head, Robert Shaye and is a horror genre veteran who is always entertaining) shows up as a medium, and is fun as hell to watch. There's what begins as a typical scéance scene that manages to do some different, interesting things, one of which is just weird, creepy and almost kind of funny, but isn't really funny either.

Following the scéance scene, the film changes track yet again, this time morphing into another sub-genre that basically fits under the larger umbrella of horror. This is where the film suffers somewhat from the ambition of the film makers. It was unexpected, and it was ambitious, but it didn't hold up as well as the first two acts of the film. Visually, it's inconsistent. Some of it is striking and engaging. Some of it is extremely bland. The third act narrative also suffers from a lack of focus. It makes sense overall, but it's lacking in some details. They're not necessarily details that have to come from the script, but could instead use some of the visual dead spots to help flesh it out or even the sound design, which was extremely well done in the first two acts. It also introduces a new character/story element that has real potential, but because it's already the third act of the film, there's just not enough there to grab onto. It doesn't so much feel shoehorned in as it does under developed. There's a good story there, and probably a whole other, fun and interesting horror film.  

It's always disappointing when a film loses it's steam or gets on the wrong track during it's third act. An underwhelming ending can ruin a film in so many different ways, it's not even worth attempting a short list. With Insidious, the last half of the third act definitely doesn't live up to either what the first two acts establish in a narrative sense or in the degree of quality. It doesn't necessarily ruin the film though. What works in the first two acts worked well enough for me to enjoy it anyway. I essentially walked away from it feeling like it was a fun horror film, that couldn't quite live up to it's own grand ambitions.

I may have felt a little more antipathy toward this film if I'd paid full price for a theater showing, but as a Netflix Blu-ray, it was definitely worth the time. It's not something I'm going to be in a rush to pick up on BR, though I might not pass it up if it were to show up in a $5 dollar DVD bargain bin.

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