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Non-Review Review: Insidious

I’m of two minds about Insidious, the latest entry in the “haunted house” horror subgenre. On one hand, I definitely respect its attempts to return to the roots of these types of films without dwelling on gore for the sake of gore. On the other, it doesn’t seem like the film is entirely certain what to show you when it can’t fill the screen with fountains of blood and guts erupting. Film is obviously a visual medium, but horror is very much an exception to the old maxim “show, don’t tell.” The problem is that Insidious shows too much.

A (para)normal family?

I’ll decry the “MTV editing” of modern films, which are seemingly hacked and slashed before being reassembled in some stylish high-tech suite somewhere, with professionals trying to ensure that the audience is as disoriented as possible. I hate that style – it reeks of a film trying to conceal something from the audience, and it’s certainly to director James Wan’s credit that he avoids that particular temptation. However, he carries it too far the other direction, with the movie showing us so much that the scare loses a lot of its impact.

For example, there’s an early scene where the film’s female lead comes upstairs to find a shadow standing over the crib of her youngest child. That’s a terrifying image for anybody, just to catch the idea that somebody is perched in your child’s room and you didn’t even notice. However, the movie over plays its hand, by quite a margin. For one thing, the figure isn’t so much in the shade as lit by red light (yeah, subtle). For another, we get a long-enough glance at the figure to realise he has small, stubby horns. A take like that should be fast, so much so that the audience doesn’t realise they’ve seen it until after they’ve seen it – instead, we see enough detail to realise the creature looks like a demon from Angel.

Stare tactics?

And there’s plenty more like that, moments where the movie takes something that might be creepy if we saw only a bit of it, but plays it up past the point of scary. For instance, in one scene, our lead is haunted by what looks like a street urchin from Oliver! I’m not even kidding, he even has the cap on and everything, and does a little jig to a song playing on the speaker. This might sound like an excursion into the black comedy that one associates with Sam Raimi (with the literal danse macabre from Evil Dead II), but it doesn’t work in the context of the film. The audience at our screening was laughing as the woman chased the delightful little scamp through the household – it seemed more like a family game of hide-and-seek than anything unnerving.

In fairness, there are some nice touches to the direction. When Wan opts to go with practical effects (the old “there’s a figure there you didn’t think was there!”) it typically works. There’s a moment or two when his timing might be off, but horror timing is arguably even tougher than in comedy – you need the audience to realise there’s something wrong but not be able to place it before you pull the shock, and Wan seems a little bit too slow. There are also some lovely moments that had me squirming in my seat, as characters would exit in the background and (impossibly swiftly) enter in the foreground. It’s an old trick, but it’s a nice one – and one that Wan handles well.

Wholesome family activities, like making the bed...

However, there are more fundamental script problems at play. The most obvious is one of tone. In a way, the first half-hour of the film is the best, as it sort of channels a creepy PG-13 Paranormal Activity vibe. I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable, which is entirely the point of going to a horror film. However, the movie then radically changes tone. It first evolves into something of a comedy, as two paranormal investigators show up to run “a dog and pony show” which wouldn’t seem out of place with the Ghostbusters. There are some nice laughs to be had, but they stop the movie’s momentum dead. The problem isn’t so much that you can’t do comedy in a serious horror film, or that you can’t meld horror and comedy – it’s more that you can’t switch easily between horror, comedy-horror and back again (which seems to be what the film is trying to do).

Then the movie alternates again from a standard haunted house movie with a splash of comedy into this almost fantasy film. In the post-movie Q &A, Wan made the point that astral projection has never really been tackled on-screen in a horror film. I’m pretty sure it has, but it’s not so common that it isn’t interesting. However, the movie uses that premise to become a “quest” movie, as another astral projector is tasked with venturing out to recover a lost soul. It literally has a fight scene as this hero is kept away from his goal – but it’s a fight scene shot like an action movie fight scene, full of punches and pushes rather than knives or razors. That sort of physical obstacle doesn’t belong in a haunted house film – the whole point of a haunting is that you can’t just punch and push these things away.

Who ya gonna call?

That said, the movie does seem to be wryly aware of standard horror genre conventions. I really loved a bit, again early in the film, where the wife confesses that she feels disturbed in the house and can’t stay there anymore. In any other horror film, her emotionally distant and skeptical husband would either (a.) dismiss her concerns in a patronising fashion, or (b.) suggest they don’t have the money to move. It’s nice to see a horror film, just once, where both members of the couple are smart enough to realise that a second mortgage is a reasonable price to pay for a demon-free existence. Moments like this are few and far between, as the rest of the film follows the “haunted house” playbook to the letter, but I did like that bit.

By the way, am I the only person who felt like we saw far too much of the demon creature? Some horrors are best left unseen and implied and glimpsed, but we get to see quite a lot of this fellow, including his pad (which, unsurprisingly, makes it look like he was a fan of se7en and that sort of grunge stuff). It’s too much, and I miss the days when creatures like that were concealed or hidden. Perhaps CGI makes it too cheap to render these creatures today, while earlier films wouldn’t have had the budget to offer a “convincing” villain – indeed, there are some cringeworthy moments involving CGI throughout the film (but, thankfully, not too many).

This couple have been to hell and back...

Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne are two great actors, and they do the best with their material. Neither is especially brilliant, but they are both reasonably solid. This isn’t a highlight of either’s career, but it’s not something that they’ll end up blushing at. They lend the movie a credibility that it might struggle to attain otherwise.

Insidious is a mess. It’s a nice return to a genre which deserves more attention, and it’s a nice attempt to move the horror genre away from gore and torture porn. On the other hand, the film seems unsure what to replace this violence and blood with, favouring for over-long shots and awkward monsters to fill the gap. Perhaps it didn’t need to worry about “filling” anything. After all, what we see isn’t nearly as terrifying as what we don’t.

7 Responses

  1. Interesting review. I haven’t seen it, but it does feel like you’re unnecessarily picking apart the movie. Isn’t what scares you the most subjective part of movies? How can “showing too much” be inherently a bad thing? Reading your review makes me understand why you didn’t like it, but not if I would like it.

    • Yep, I think that’s a fair criticism of my style. To be honest, that’s part of the reason I call them “non-review reviews” – simply because I don’t think I can objective rank or compare films (I probbaly could if I set my mind to it, but probably not well). I like to talk about how a given movie feels to me, and I think it’s reasonable to say that what I like about a film, somebody else might hate and vice-versa. I don’t know, I just don’t think I’m comfortable giving what might pass as objective rather than subjective criticism.

      And, to be fair, I did jump a couple of times, so there are some scares in there.

      The “showing too much” is perhaps something I picked up from my own subjective experience, so I perhaps put too much stock in trying to make it a more general observation (but it is, I’ve found, a lot of people agree on). It’s something I picked up from my grandfather, when he used to watch horror movies late into the night with me – the logic being that a person’s imagination can populate a space with something far more terrifying than anything a film maker can put up there. The less comprehensible a thing is, the more frightening it is – because we can’t rationalise it. The longer you show something for, the more comprehensible it becomes, the easier it is for an audience to “get used to it” (even if we’re talking miliseconds here). Again, this is, as you point out, something subjective and something I probably shouldn’t have treated like a founding principle.

      However, I’d agree that horror is subjective, so this is one of those areas where I think I just try to write from my own experience. I could assert that “Wan isn’t as able to shock an audience while saddled with a PG-13 rating and with most of the tools of his trade placed out of reach”, but I think that’s a little unfair – I felt it better to give the reasons the film didn’t scare me. If a person agrees with them to a greater or lesser degree, they may go to see the film with controlled expectations, or they may not go at all. If they disagree with me, then that might also inform their decision to see the film.

      I hope I wasn’t unfairly picking apart the film. I did enjoy parts of it, even if I spend more space discussing the stuff I didn’t like.

      Sorry for the rambling response, but you raise a fair point and I owe you an explanation.

  2. Justin: Showing too much can certainly be a bad thing. Just compare “Alien” and “Aliens” with later titles in that series.

    I opted to catch “Scream 4” – or “Scr4m,” if you like – Friday instead of “Insidious” but I may very well come back to it to see what the fuss is about. Nice to hear a review that isn’t owing down to it, however.

    • I kinda really want to see Scre4m. I hear it’s the best sense the first (and I’m like the one person in the world who enjoyed the second one).

    • I think Stu nailed the argument perfectly. I sat on edge for the entirety of Alien, never knowing when that thing would finally say hi.

  3. Insidious isn’t the scariest movie I’ve seen but it still a good movie though. It manage to give me some trouble closing my eyes when I go to bed last night.

    • I wouldn’t go that far, but it does have a few creepy moments. Unfortunately, they are undermined by dancing street urchins.

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