Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Supernatural Movie Reviews: Insidious

So, I thought I’d try my hand at a more recent flick, having been stuck in the nineties the past two weeks. But here’s the thing: last week’s movie (from 1999) made me miss the nineties. This one (from 2010) made me miss the nineties.

Year: 2010
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye (not to be confused with the one and only Shai Linne)
Directed by:  James Wan

I’m gonna level with you: after watching this movie, I couldn’t sleep. I just lay there in my bed, staring at the ceiling, trying to get that stupid Tiny Tim song out of my head.  (rimshot)

But seriously, at least ten of my facebook friends called Insidious, “the scariest movie I’ve ever scene.” And I tend to agreeif by “scary” you mean “silly” and “not really all that scary.”

So what’s Insidious like? Well, I could put it two ways. First, I could point out how the trailer brags that this movie is “from the makers of Saw and Paranormal Activity.” To quote Lucille Bluth: “This does not bode will.” Or perhaps we should just say:  “What if you combined Inception with The Exorcist with The Matrix with Ghostbusters, and filtered the whole thing through a post-funny episode of The Simpsons? Why, you'd get Insidious.

Basic Plot:
Josh and Renee (apparently spelled Renai, which looks like the way Forrest Gump would pronounce Renee) have several kids, but only one of them is in a pseudo-coma because he did too much out-of-body traveling during his sleep.

Natch, they had to call some kind of paranormal investigator. When she shows up, she has a bunch of steampunk-inspired equipment and a couple assistants who look and dress like Mormon missionaries. She explains that the young boy, Dalton, is currently in a place called The Further, which is apparently “an infinite realm that holds all of our dreams and all of our nightmares.” In The Further, there’s a black-and-red demon trying to inhabit the boy’s body. Did I mention that, if the kid isn’t rescued tonight, the demon will claim him forever?

Luckily, Elise (the medium/investigator/whatever) reveals that Josh (Dalton’s dad) was in pretty much the same situation at that age. A series of appropriately weathered pictures reveals that he was (and, presumably, is) haunted by an old, scary Victorian lady in a black wedding dress. So, of course, Josh “goes in” after Dalton, confronts some demons and dead people, frees his son, and then confronts the Victorian lady.  We don’t really see how that comes out until Josh (possessed by the scary lady) strangles Elise and then sneaks up behind his wife. Fade out. (Pet Cemetery called and they want their ending back.)

Merits and Demerits:
The cinematography is good. The script is solid. The acting is very good overall. I love Barbara Hershey’s work in general, and she really owns her role as Josh’s overbearing mother. I did not recognize the hauntingly beautiful older woman who played the hauntingly haunting paranormal investigator, but she stole every scene she was in. Patrick Wilson (who I loved in the Diablo Cody dramedy Young Adult) is also pretty good with his “less is less” approach.

The kid wasn’t great.

But somehow, despite a lot of good stuff, the thing just falls flat. Why?  Let’s start with the nonsensical stuff. From the non sequitur Laozi quote to the fact that old-timey cameras are apparently better at spotting the supernatural than their modern counterparts (just like microphones that look like WWI gas masks pick up better sound than, ya know, regular microphones).

But, really, the problem is in the visuals. I feel like I should point out that the release date for Insidious was April 1; perhaps that explains why the demonized boy is seen climbing around the ceiling  (already done unscarily in Exorcist III). Other visuals are just neutral in nature, but presented with a sort of Scary, eh? Eh?! vibe. I mean, could a metronome be kind of creepy? Sure, but it’s not automatically creepy just because you make it clear that you want it to be. Likewise, a dancing boy/midget in a newsie hat isn’t scary in and of itself. Neither was the “smiley family.”  And Ugh! that scene took forever to get anywhere! I have a very long attention span, but a lot of sequences in this movie reminded me of Saturday Night Live. You know how SNL milks a joke for ages, whether it’s funny or not?  That’s kind of what Insidious does, only with scares. And these scares are more along the lines of “You like-a-da-juice-eh?” rather than “Yeah, that’s the Ticket” or even “Makin' kah-pays!”

In fact, I submit that the alleged scariest part in the movie is actually the stupidest. I’m thinking of a particular scene with a particular evil monster who looks almost exactly like a particular Sith Lord from a particular George Lucas film that probably should have never been made. The first time we see this Darth Maul demon (appearing behind Josh during a tense conversation) could have been  a decent scare, except that I’d seen it like infinity times on the preview before I saw it in context. Also, it was confusing that he didn’t have any kind of Jedi weapon (Dalton, on the other hand, does rock a toy light sabre when the Darth Maul Demon first attacks him pre-coma).

So this is yet another example of a “scary movie” showing us too much, leaving nothing to the imagination, and losing the “fear of the unknown” factor that makes really scary movies really scary. This guy (the Darth Maul Demon) looks like the most generic picture of the devil you can imagine. Seriously, he has hooves. Hooves! And speaking of showing too much, let's talk about that allegedly scariest scene, which is perhaps the seminal example of this phenomenon. Yes, I’m talking about Darth Maul Demon in his bedroom (apparently decorated with Susan from Seinfeld’s creepy doll collection) sharpening his claws to the mellow tones of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” Seriously, showing the bad guy at home, preparing for his insidiousness while listening to Tiny Tim? That’s scary?! And why is he listening to that?  Does “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” calm him down? Does he like it for the ironic value (after all, smearing red lipstick all over your face is, admittedly beyond hipster)? Is he just trying to be creepy? And where did he even get a spirit-world version of the album that plays on an early 1900s Victrola? 

I have the same beef with the whole climactic sequence in “The Further.”  We know it's “scary” because it’s tinted red and there are like fifteen fog machines working overtime. (I sort of got the feeling that the Kobra Kai were gonna jump out in their skeleton costumes and beat Josh down . . . which would have been awesome.) This sequence could have been done in a truly terrifying way, but it misses every opportunity. There’s none of the modified reality that makes dreams dreams and nightmares nightmarish (just steam and red lights not unlike your average Jr. High dance).

And, again, it’s a little distracting how derivative it is. When he’s contorting, eyes closed, in the chair. I kept waiting for him to open his eyes and say, “I know Kung Fu.”  And, if they were going to try and channel Inception, they should have gone a level deeper. That’s right, I’m talking about a red-tinted, fog-filled dream world within a red-tinted, fog-filled dream world.

It’s not like the director doesn’t understand how to pull off genuine horror movie scares. In fact, the whole premise of the movie (a premise which is legitimately freaky) relies on our native fear of the unseen. Some examples of Insidious pulling it off: Elise intensely describing the demon in the corner, while all we can see is the fear in her face. Also, the whole subplot involving Josh’s being haunted is much scarier because it’s much subtler and involves less direct TA-DA! Heeeeere’s the monster! element. My skin crawled at the glimpses of the old lady (who looks an awful lot like an older version of Helena Bonham Carter playing, well, pretty much every role she’s ever played) getting ever closer to Josh.

At the end of the day, though, the real horrifying stuff in this movie doesn’t leverage our fear of the dark, the unknown, or what we will see when we drift off to sleepthat would be fair game. Instead, it taps into our fear of not being able to protect our children. That’s probably not a fear we should milk for amusement.

There are other good elements in the story, but they mostly seem like they belong in a different film. Tucker and Specs are great comic relief and very likeable as Elise’s sidekicks. The relationship between Josh, Renai, and Lorraine is also intriguing and believable. If they had put that in the foreground and the demons from The Further further into the background, this would be a whole different level of movie.

If you want to see a film that pulls off the nightmarish, off-putting vibe that Insidious fails to produce, see Paper House. It’s a lot like this one, only better, in that it feels like a real nightmare . . . assuming you’re into that kind of thing.

Theological Low Points:
The main problem here is not the totally extrabiblical nature of The Further (which is clearly intended as a fictional plot device), but the blending of mutually exclusive religious systems. When Elise’s two sidekicks want to go to 60 Minutes with their video proof of paranormal activity, she responds with “Proof? Proof of what? Nine tenths of the world believes that when you die, your soul ascends to sit with God. Would you be telling them something they didn’t already know?” as if the stuff she’s selling about The Further, etc. is somehow in line with what those 90% believe.

But the Diety who may be answering Josh’s prayer seems to be on the same team as the three ghostbusters. And what’s the point of the priest who makes a super-brief appearance? He seems to have been there when Lorraine and Renai discussed calling in the three ghostbusters. Are we to assume he was cool with it? He doesn’t leave in a huff or anything . . .

And yet, this is the very opposite of the biblical gift of discernment. What this woman and her Gen X sidekicks are doing is not a spiritual gift and is not good. If we want to pair her with a character in the Bible, she corresponds, not to Anna or Deborah, but to the Witch of Endor, famous for the sin of divination. And yet, I suppose Insidious does not take a position on whether Elise’s activities are good or bad. In fact . . .

Theological High Points:
Perhaps the theological high points are found in which characters' efforts don’t work. Renai’s box of self-help books, such as Be The Better You and Inch By Inch, It’s A Cinch: A Guide To Achieving Your Goals, do not help her battle the spiritual bondage in her life. This is something of a theme in my book Demoniac. Similarly, Elise’s shouts of “Leave this vessel!” and “Leave this earthly body!” are fruitless. And why wouldn’t they be? She speaks with absolutely no authority but her own quavering shouts (reminding us of the seven sons of Sceva).

The great power of the demonized boy and the fact that the demon terrorizes and injures Dalton are also in line with the picture we see in the New Testament. I see an implied message of “Don’t mess with astral projection and the like” as well.

But the highest high point is one that never really pans out and gets sort of swallowed up in the psychic gobbledegook. I’m talking about Alanso, Josh’s student who pokes holes in the theory of evolution and tells him, “Things are simple; you just can’t see it. Put your faith in Him.” I like Alanso, but it seems like the second half of his arc wound up on the cutting room floor.

Best Scares:
  • The voice in the baby monitor. Really well-done scene.
  • Dalton breaking his own jaw.
  • “There’s someone in Cali’s room.”
  • “I don’t like it when he walks around.” That line was the only moment that legitimately made the hairs on my neck stand up.

Memorable quotes:
  • “This is the first line of a joke. Guy comes home to find his wife with a priest . . .
  • “The universe picked a fight with the wrong chick.”
  • “The thing is here. I know it.”
  • “That wasn’t psychic. Lorraine told me your name.”
  • “Your house is not haunted. Your son is.”
  • “Forget the limits and laws and logic of this world. We are treading in a different place now.” Yeah, a place where Tiny Tim can provide the soundtrack for your horror movie.


  1. Great review. The best scene I feel is when the medium/exorcist whatever gal is decribing the demon to the person drawing, but you never get to see him. Very well done.

  2. at first I thought I haven't even seen this then after reading your review I realized that Chelsea made me watch this a while ago. And I would have to go with your review for sure...."hooves" really?!? and the outdated supernatural detecting equipment :(

  3. Zach, good review. I am one of those who feels this was the scariest movie I've ever seen. Of course it wasn't a perfect movie though. I feel there are classes of horror films - Scary, but somewhat shallow films (the 'Paranormal Activity' series); good smart thrillers with horror elements that aren't entirely scary (the Sixth Sense), and then somewhere in between like 'Insidious.' Susan, I'm not sure if this is the part you are referring to, but the woman with the gas mask was unforgettable. Maybe it was an old school technique, but I've never seen anyone use that method, and that's probably why it was so effective for me. It's been awhile since I've seen it though. Also, they did kinda lose me with the ending. But i did think the people smiling strangely in what I'll call "the Funhouse" was very macabre to me. It worked. Reminded me of watching 'the Twilight Zone' as a child.

  4. Decent movie until they showed that cheap Halloween costume that they tried to parade around as a demon. Then it just imploded