Friday, April 29, 2011


James Wan is one of the most talented grindhouse directors working today, but he’d be a lot better off if he’d quit ripping off the classics. The climax of his last film, the neo-Charlie Bronson revenge flick Death Sentence, was a shameless plundering of Taxi Driver; at one point, the hero actually shoots the fingers off the bad guy, just before taking a bullet to the neck and falling on a couch. Similarly, his new haunted-house horror movie, Insidious, plays splendidly for the first hour or so, before it becomes a virtual remake of Poltergeist. If he cuts the cutesy film-student referencing, Wan just might make a genre masterpiece of his own.

Until that happens, Insidious will suffice. I’d been dying to see this since it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, when fanboys were buzzing about how the creators of Saw – Wan and his frequent collaborator, actor/writer Leigh Whannell – had made another horror classic. The first half of Insidious certainly delivers on that promise. It’s about a yuppie couple (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson) whose young son goes into an inexplicable coma; right around the same time, things start to go bump in the night.

Like Dead Silence, Wan’s other post-Saw horror film, Insidious is skimpy on the gory effects. (It’s rated PG-13.) Instead, we get the old scary-looking-day-players-popping-out-of-the-dark routine, as the soundtrack practically screams at us to jump out of our seats. Wan is a master of this sort of thing; even Dead Silence, generally regarded as a misfire by fans and critics (and dismissed by its makers as the product of studio interference), had me cowering in my seat in fright.

The movie pretty much falls apart when a team of parapsychologists shows up to investigate the disturbances. As Carol J. Clover notes in her essential book on the genre, Men, Women and Chainsaws, task-force teams of psychics have been a horror-movie staple since 1963’s The Haunting. It doesn’t help that the team in Insidious precisely mirrors the one in Poltergeist: two male techies, who defer to an all-seeing female psychic (gamely played here by Lin Shaye). The scene where the psychics communicate with the spirits is dynamically staged and might seem original… if you haven’t seen J.A. Bayona’s vastly superior The Orphanage.

Insidious has a bad habit of getting our hopes up and then crushing them. A drawing of a red-faced demon in the comatose boy’s bedroom is wicked scary, but when we actually meet the devil he looks a lot like Darth Maul from The Phantom Menace. (The demon in Drag Me to Hell – Lamia – is infinitely more terrifying; there's a good example of a director showing just enough and then wisely leaving the rest up to the viewer’s imagination.) Like Event Horizon and The Ninth Gate, Insidious promises a glimpse at a hellish parallel world and then never quite delivers on that promise. We end up feeling cheated out of a more complete movie, even though it must be said the filmmakers have accomplished a great deal on a paltry $1.5 million budget.

When I could tell what was going on (I have a tendency to whip off my glasses during the scarier parts of horror movies, rendering the screen a complete blur), I thoroughly enjoyed the opening stretch of Insidious. It’s perhaps notable that the film’s best-directed scene is also its most original: a frightening scene with a playful child, which reveals that it isn’t the house that’s haunted but its occupants. Wan should stick to original material next time; a filmmaker this bloody talented deserves nothing less.

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