Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Insidious: A Scary-o-typical Horror Flick

Some horror movies try to surprise you. Not just that they make use of frighteningly surprising images, what with the demons and the things jumping out of closets and the scary LADIES! But a clever horror movie will play with the conventions, take you somewhere unexpected, and generally catch you off guard. Other horror movies will play into the most well-traveled conventions, but draw agonizing attention to just that fact in an effort to appear witty and "meta".

There is a third class of horror movies not characterized by convoluted plot devices, tricky twists and turns, or painful self-reference - they just present you with good, clean, old-fashioned horror situations, and challenge you not to be scared by them. I find these types of movies to be the most effective if done right. Such was the case with Insidious.

The movie is not overly clever or subtle or thought-provoking. It doesn't ask the big questions or make you question everything you thought you knew about horror movies. What it does do is make you jump out of your seat and prevents you from sleeping for nights on end.

When I go to a horror movie, I'm not looking for cheap, surprise-only, jump-out-at-you moments.  Or gory, covered-in-blood, guts-everywhere sequences. Or even disturbing images meant to sit in your mind and terrorize you for days to come. In fact, I don't look for much when I go to a horror movie. I don't really like to go see a lot of horror movies. It's no fun being scared.

...Well, OK, sometimes it is kind of fun to be scared. I mean, even Batman has the Scarecrow. But it's only fun to be scared in the right way. Which, as it turns out, is very hard to do.

Insidious is best described as a collection of good, clean scares, somewhat tied together loosely by a story, and with at least a marginal effort made to explain why the scares were happening. Each creepy whispering or vision of a sinister figure is underscored with the most haunting of dissonant violin screechings and framed with the most ominous, shadowy presentation imaginable. Each confrontation with a fiery demon or harrowing trip into "The Further" is accompanied by a rudimentary explanation of the dangers of astral projection and a team of paranormal investigators that looks like a cross between Poltergeist and Ghost Hunters.

Lin Shaye, the Exposition Master
In fact, "The Further" was the original title of the movie. And I think it's a better title, as it has more to do with the action of the plot. See, "The Further" is the name given by Lin Shaye (in some very effective exposition) to describe the realm your soul visits when it has an "out of body" experience. It turns out {[(SPOILER ALERT!!!)]} that the movie is about some kid who astral-projects his soul too far away from his body, which attracts some pretty gnarly extra-dimensional beings from "The Further". "Insidious", on the other hand, is only used in the movie as a descriptor of one of the nastier demons that's gotten involved in this case.

So bringing in the astral plane serves the purpose of both explaining the scares and grounding them in a recognizable tradition. This makes the scares somewhat situational; in the same way as you need to suppose the existence of God/the Devil for The Omen to happen, you have to accept some kind of belief in astral projection for Insidious to make any sense. But if you buy the premise that something crazy, spiritual, and mystical can happen during these so-called "out of body experiences", the bit that goes along with it can become quite scary.

Patrick Wilson, challenging you not to be scared...
Then there's the downright creepy images (see above) explained by the presence of an inherently creepy astral plane, and enhanced by the most eerily, perfectly appropriate scary-movie-music on the planet (provided by Joseph Bishara). I always wonder how people who compose this type of music can ever sleep. If an idea for one of those tunes was running through my head as I tried to dose off, forget about it - I'd be huddled in the corner with a flashlight and a geniune replica batarang until sunrise. Needless to say, the ambiance provided the perfect environment in which to be scared.

Insidious was exactly what you'd expect from a collaboration between the guy who created Saw (James Wan, Leigh Whannell) and the producers behind the Paranormal Activity now-franchise (Oren Peli, Jason Blum), but without the gore - equal parts eerie chills and scary/disturbing presentation. And the fact that it didn't insult the audience's resolve by throwing in a happy ending only sweetened the deal. All that coupled with a kind of cool viral marketing campaign (which I thankfully didn't find until after seeing the movie), and you've got a pretty effective example of a tried-and-true scarefest with both its head and its heart in the right place.

Verdict: 72 Congos.