Saturday, May 7, 2011

REVIEW: Insidious (2011)

Director: James Wan
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins

"It's not the house that's haunted. It's your son."

Yeow! That’s some red-hot horror-flavored cheese going on here – like, so cheesy that it almost defies the laws of cinema how this isn’t totally terrible. Insidious is a new movie by the makers of the original SAW movie, James Wan and Leigh Whannel, and Oren Peli, who produced Paranormal Activity. That isn’t exactly a pedigree to be proud of. I know what you’re thinking – didn’t the SAW guys create that horrible movie Dead Silence a few years back? Didn’t they both have a hand in several of the mediocre and underwhelming sequels? Didn’t Paranormal Activity pretty much suck? This movie had a lot of stuff going against it. But something about Insidious made me want to see it – maybe my thirst every now and again for modern horror movies about rich suburban white people. Or maybe the ties to H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos, however vague, were what incensed my interest. I don’t know. But this is one hell of a kick-ass horror movie from a bunch of guys I never suspected to put out a good one.

The story, about a rich white suburban family with few other problems, gets scary when their little boy Dalton falls into a ‘coma’ that he can’t wake up from. That’s distressing enough, but when the film adds in a bunch of supernatural poltergeists, parasites and hell creatures tormenting the family, things get real. Fast. Now I know what you’re thinking (again) – that sounds totally generic and dull. How on earth is he praising this movie?! Well I’ll tell you.

For starters, it doesn’t take itself that seriously. This is one of those movies that doesn’t mind throwing in a little comedy into the mix. Everything about this film is overblown, ridiculous and colorful, and I love it. It really sets this one apart from the crowd and makes the scary parts that much scarier. We’ve all seen other horror movies where all the colors are dark and seedy, and that’s cool too, but it’s just so expected. To have a film throwing all these weird colors at us is really out of left field and offers a nice treat for the eyes. And the sounds are off the wall too, with this weird opera music popping up at various points to accentuate even more how strange and alien the goings-on of the plot are. Top notch atmospheric device. It makes everything feel that much more off-balance and uneasy.

Second, the story is better than the norm for these kinds of films. Movies like The Haunting in Connecticut had it decently done enough, but Insidious goes the extra mile and spices up the usual formula. Yes, the boy is being haunted by spirits, but this time they’re all from a spiritual hell-zone called ‘the Further.’ And the film goes into detail about the connection with this and people astral projecting in their sleep – which the boy can do quite adeptly, although he does not know it. And you actually do get to see ‘the Further’, endowed masterfully with excellent special effects and delicious horror imagery to make it look cooler than any 3D film you’ll see this year. Awesome stuff. All of these things add up to a more detailed plot that makes the movie more believable (even in its most excessive, silly moments) and more interesting.

Third, the scenery and aesthetics? Just awesome, beyond belief. This is horror incarnate; of a kind I haven’t seen done so well since the cheesiest days of the 80s. I like horror because of its over the top excesses and silly imagery: flaming torches down long dark hallways, red lighting and chains and monsters that get right up in your face and scare you. Shadow-men with horns and claws standing in the corner by your comatose son’s bed. Scary little girls with grins of death frozen forever on their faces. This movie operates on a very campy and un-subtle notion much like Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights – or, for non-Floridians, the biggest, most over the top haunted house attraction you can think of in your own state. Everything is big and loud, so that it will reach even the people furthest away. Horror – good horror – is about the theatrical and the surreal, both of them combined to warp the minds of the audience.

The film pays gleeful tribute to the horror of the past all throughout its duration. The musical cues and those frozen grins popping up on the ghosts remind me of old 1920s silent horror. The Gothic black and white look of the shots of the house in the credits sets a very classic feel as well. The hellish colors and warped, stylish dramatic flair recall Lovecraft. The whole haunted house motif, the jump scares and the manic energy the film has are all like things time-capsuled out of an 80s horror movie. This whole thing should be a mess of jumbled influences and nonsensical parts, but it comes out to something hugely entertaining.

Hell, even the jump scares are awesome. These are actually really well done and make the experience that much more fun! How did they do that? Most movies I see these days just put them in there as excuses to not write any actual suspense or terror into the script (laziness kills), but Insidious uses them forcefully and powerfully, proving that anything can truly be done well if you try hard enough.

I think that’s the best word to describe this movie in the end – energy. Everything here feels vital, urgent and honest. Everything here is so in your face and so excitedly done that you have no choice but to sit up, pay attention and let the movie bowl you over like a tank. This movie was made out of love for the horror genre, and with powerful strokes it has become one of the most enjoyable American horror films in recent years. Sure, it’s not perfect. The characters could be a little better, a little less generic, but even then, they’re no worse than any other horror film, and the movie itself is strong enough so that you won’t notice unless you’re really looking to pick it apart. Insidious is a ton of fun and I will definitely watch it again more in the future. Highly recommended.