Saturday, April 2, 2011
Insidious (Directed by James Wan; Written by Leigh Whannell)
This ballyhooed haunted house/demonic possession film from the creative minds behind the Saw and Paranormal Activity movies proves to be less than the sum of its parts. It is stocked with well-crafted startle moments and genuinely creepy images/scenes, but fails to establish an overarching sense of dread (the scares work on the eye and ear more than the imagination). The narrative struggles for coherence, even after the plot is hashed out midway through via one massive infodump (in a nutshell: young Dalton,
unwittingly capable of astral projection, has gotten lost in a haunted realm called the "Further," and now a host of otherwordly bogeys are vying to cross over and occupy his soul-less body).
Insidious draws on the bump-in-the-night formula most recently popularized by Paranormal Activity, but unlike that earlier film and its sequel, never gets viewers to care about its main characters. Dalton falls into his strange comatose state minutes into the film, before the audience has any real chance to get to know him (making it hard to fret about the fate of his body and soul). The normally-terrific actor Patrick Wilson (Hard Candy; Little Children) is wooden as Josh, Dalton's brooding father with a dark secret. Rose Byrne, meanwhile, is limited by the role scripted for her--Josh's whiny, unheroic wife Renai. And Barbara Hershey (playing Josh's mother) is absolutely wasted by the filmmakers; her function here appears to be to facilitate the arrival of the psychic/
exorcist Elise on the scene.
One deviation from Paranormal Activity that director Wan and screenwriter Whannell do deserve some credit for is the decision to bring the demonic entity onscreen. Unfortunately, the red-faced Satanic archetype that's revealed looks hokey and unoriginal. As critic Michael O'Sullivan opines in his review of Insidious in the Washington Post, the arch-villain could be "the love child of Darth Maul and Gene Simmons."
The first half of the film, with its steadily increasing weirdness, is quite effective, but the second half feels like being trapped on some haywire ride at an amusement park. The action is just too frenetic to be truly frightening, particularly the film's Inception-like climax cutting back and forth between multiple planes (the haunted-house setting of the Further and the supernaturally-assaulted living room of Josh and Renai's home). Insidious, alas, also seems to think that obnoxious noise is the best means to disturb an audience. The cacophony includes an infant squalling in the beginning, Tiny Tim crooning in the middle, and ghosts wailing at the end.
I have no doubt that this film is going to attract a huge (largely teen) audience, one that will declare the proceedings exquisitely scary. For me, though, experiencing Insidious was more headache-inducing than horripilating.