Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Less is Definitely More: Insidious


What do The ExorcistThe EntityThe Shining, and The Amityville Horror all have in common (besides the ability to cause nightmares)? They all got together and had a son,Insidious. And despite having been directed by James Wan, one of the creators of the Saw franchise, this film takes chances in its subtlety, slow buildup, and technique, and appeals to a slightly more mature audience than most popular (torturous) slasher films. If you come into this flick expecting immediacy or realism, probably best to keep walking, but if it's fright you want, it's fright you're gonna get. (I lost count how many times I actually screamed after three). Take that, Sydney Prescott.
The Lamberts, Josh, Renai, and their three children, notice strange happenings upon moving into their new house. Some books find their way out of a book shelf; a box of sheet music is misplaced and then randomly found in the attic; the baby seems to cry all the time, and so on. But along with these seemingly harmless occurances, Dalton, the eldest son, is suddenly stricken by a health condition that leaves him in a coma which no one can explain. When the child returns home from the hospital, Renai begins seeing and hearing things, an ominous voice speaking on the baby monitor, several intruders looking in on the family or pacing about on the balcony, and later, a bloody handprint at the foot of Dalton's bed sheets. Josh agrees to relocate the family to another house in order to placate Renai, but in vain as it turns out; whatever it is that is haunting them simply relocates, too. "It's not your house that's haunted," a family friend later explains, "it's your son." 
Technically speaking, the film also takes its time, using sound (string glissandos, sudden percussion, crackling noises) and motion almost more than image, at least at first. Camera shots are extremely well done; hovering back and forth, approaching a shoulder, or in a crouched-low from below; this film is terrifying without being in your face. We see the movement and lurking of the hauntings before we see their faces, and this is a good thing, because the look of these things was very nearly too much. All that slow buildup and leisurely getting there? They more than make up for it. A demon is a demon, a creepy old lady a creepy old lady, but for some reason, putting leering, constant grins on these things just about did me in. Adding "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" drives the point home even further---these things don't just want to take your soul, they want you to see how happy they are about it first! (Shudder).


This film's greatness is all about pacing and technique. Getting the audience to know and care about the characters is crucial, and while causing the film to unfold slowly in the beginning, it allows us to see the family in a personal, realistic way (unlike say, a teen slasher ensemble where character at all is an uncommon luxury). Renai holds Dalton in her lap and looks at old photos of herself. The baby is needy and requires holding a lot. Josh puts lotion on his crow's feet before bed and then annoys Renai by singing to her (these people are just like us!) When the scary business starts up, it's all the more alarming because we've been given time to identify with the Lamberts, and the fear we feel is not superficial but legitimate because of this "involvement."  This family, and by implication, all middle class American families, cannot be protected from the evil that stalks them; the devices they depend on ---baby monitor, home security system---are turned against them and they're left utterly helpless. 

Comparatively speaking, every fan of horror films who sees this one will probably notice a hundred different nods to a hundred different ancestors, all of them brilliant. Casting Barbara Hershey (who starred in the extremely relevant The Entity) was a good one, having very similar-looking sisters peek around a corner, (grinning, of course) was another. Bottom line? You will get your money's worth from this film. And perhaps need to sleep with the light on for a few nights afterwards.

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