Thursday, March 31, 2011

Insidious: sneaky demons lead family "Further"

If “it’s not the house that’s haunted,” as the tagline promises, then why does director James Wan spend the listless opening credit sequence for Insidious doling out one conventionally creepy haunted house image after another (and solemnly fading to black after each and every one)? Perhaps under the persuasion of co-producer Oren Peli (creator of the mega-smash new-old school chiller Paranormal Activity), Wan’s affectionate deployment of tried-and-true creaky horror tropes is, in theory at least, more than welcome in the era of torture and mutilation as entertainment (an era Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell helped cultivate with their Saw franchise). The problem is that these tropes feel almost arbitrary in their placement. But then so many items in Insidious feel arbitrary.

The first member of the Lambert family we meet is Renai (Rose Byrne), the second Dalton (Ty Simpkins). Mother and son both rise early and wear matching pajamas. They seem to share a quiet curiosity and a connection distinct from those shared by the other members of the family. Renai, a struggling songwriter, is diminutive in figure and seems especially vulnerable. Unsurprisingly, she’ll be the character most tormented by apparitions and inexplicable sounds (the haunted baby monitor makes its token entrance early on) that accumulate in the film’s slow burning first act. But it’s her husband Josh (Patrick Wilson, as always, looking like he’s hiding something) that intrigues. Hints are dropped rather heavily that there’s something untrustworthy about him. He doesn’t like to be photographed. He’s a schoolteacher but seems awkward with kids. He stays late at work when he knows Renai is stuck at home, deeply upset by the weird disturbances, minding three kids, and single-handedly nesting. Josh also snores loudly, and rubs some dandyish cream under his eyes before bed.

Soon Dalton has an accident in the attic and winds up in a coma that the doctors can’t make sense of. That his coma seems directly connected to the by now unambiguously paranormal activity (a premise that could almost resemble something out of a Haruki Murakami novel) is the thing that got me especially interested in
Insidious. But a major switch in tone and tack occurs at the film’s mid-point. The Lamberts move house but the shadowy figures keep a-comin’. What was previously only suggested, sometimes rather effectively so, suddenly becomes all too visible and really, really dumb looking. Steam punk heavies, a red-faced boogeyman and many kooky, pancake make-up wearing, formally dressed phantoms turn up, looking like rejects from Carnival of Souls. A spiritualist is consulted, accompanied by a pair of bumbling ghost busters (one of whom is played by Whannell), and a whole over-complicated mythology begins to establish itself surrounding a normally invisible parallel realm called “the Further.” The aforementioned connection between Renai and Dalton turns out to have no consequence. Barbara Hershey arrives on the scene, conjuring horrorphile memories of The Entity, but ultimately for no special reason. Much of what’s set up during the first act gets shelved. Josh eventually is induced into an out-of-body experience and travels to the Further where he gets into an astral fistfight with a demon and wins, whatever that means. Insidious can’t quite decide what it wants to be, though the real problem is that what it promised to be might have been so much more satisfying.

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