CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: INSIDIOUS
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(The Scene: The interior of a creepy old house. MICHAEL ARRUDA and L.L. SOARES are sitting around a table in the living room. The lights are off. An old MEDIUM sits between them, with her eyes closed. They are all holding hands).
MA: You know this is a complete waste of time.
LS: Shhh, I want to hear her talk mumbo-jumbo!
MEDIUM: Oh mumbo jumbo!
LS (chuckles): I love that!
MA: Oh, hi folks. We’re here in the middle of this séance, when we should be reviewing the new haunted house movie, INSIDIOUS because L.L. wants to— tell me again why we’re doing this?
LS: We’re here to contact the spirits and tell them we’re sick of haunted house movies!
MA: We’re sick of bad ones, anyway.
MEDIUM: Sorry guys, I’m getting a busy tone. We’ll have to try again later.
LS: We need a new service provider.
MA: Good. That means we have time to do our review.
LS (grimaces): Oh, goody!
MA: Do you want to start this one?
LS: Sure. INSIDIOUS is the new movie by James Wan, the guy who gave us the first SAW movie (2004), the evil dummy movie DEAD SILENCE (2007), which we’re bound to review here eventually, as well as DEATH SENTENCE (also 2007).
As this one starts out, I felt like I’d seen it before. And I did. Last time, it was called PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007). These kinds of movies have become a cliché already. We start out with a normal-looking family. Then weird things start to happen. Things get moved around. The characters hear noises and see strange things. And eventually, they decide to call for help.
MA: Even the interior of the house looks the same. I thought I was watching PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 (2010) all over again, the houses looked so similar.
However, I have to say here that the scares worked better in INSIDIOUS than in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 because stuff actually happens. In PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2, there’d be a creepy set-up, but then nothing would happen, it’d be a false alarm or something, and we’d wait until the next night, when the process would repeat itself. It was a process I grew tired of very quickly. But here, in INSIDIOUS, we get faces in windows, strange voices, and spirits and demons. There’s definitely more going on here, at least at the beginning of this one.
LS: And no hand-held documentary-style camera this time. I thought that was a pleasant surprise. This one actually looks like a real movie!
Okay, so the family consists of John Lambert, (Patrick Wilson, who we last saw in WATCHMEN (2009) and THE A-TEAM (2010) ), his wife Renai (Rose Byrne from 28 WEEKS LATER (2007) and KNOWING (2009)) and their kids: two sons and a baby daughter. When the family moves into a new house, strange things start to happen, and Renai begins to believe the house is haunted. One of their sons, Dalton (Ty Simpkins) is playing in the attic when he falls and hurts himself. He doesn’t seem to be hurt very badly, but by the next day, he has fallen into what appears to be a coma. The doctors are completely baffled. When weird stuff continues to happen, including strange people somehow getting into the house, despite locked doors and home alarm systems, Renai finally convinces Josh it’s time to move.
They move to another house, but soon afterwards, strange things start happening again. They just can’t seem to catch a break!
In desperation, Renai calls first a priest and then Josh’s mother, Lorraine Lambert (Barbara Hershey, who we last saw as the controlling mother in last year’s BLACK SWAN), who completely believes her daughter-in-law, suggests they call in an old friend of hers, Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye, who was in everything from the original A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) to SNAKES ON A PLANE (2006)). Elise is a professional medium and sends two of her investigators to check out the house first, Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the script), who confirm there really is something supernatural going on.
I felt that once Elise showed up, the movie finally started to get interesting.
MA (laughs): I completely disagree. I thought the movie got off to a terrific start but slowed dramatically once Elise and her friends entered the scene.
LS: What do you know? Up until Elise shows up, it was just your garden-variety haunted house movie.
MA: Well, in terms of story, yeah. It was nothing we haven’t seen before, but I thought the scares were really working here. I haven’t had this much fun at a horror movie with the audience screaming in a long time as I did during the first half of INSIDIOUS. People were shouting out, and the guy in front of me had cried out so much that half way through he yelled, “No more haunted houses me for me! I can’t take it!”
LS: I’m thinking the same thing. But for a different reason.
But seriously, who are you seeing these movies with? A troop of girl scouts?
MA: No, the row in front of me was a group of college-aged guys, and they were screaming like crazy, and there were a couple of women behind me who cried out every time a face appeared in a window. The theater was packed, which was a good thing, and the crowd was really into it.
During some movies I’m thinking what the heck are these people screaming at? But here I thought the scares really worked. There was the strange whisper on the baby monitor in the middle of the night which suddenly became a loud shout. I loved the faces in the window and the red faced demon I thought was really cool-looking, even if he did remind me a little bit of Darth Maul from STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999).
LS: Exactly! I knew he reminded me of something.
MA: And I absolutely loved the scene where the mom wakes up and sees and hears the long haired fiend pacing on the balcony outside her window and suddenly without warning he’s inside the bedroom with her.
LS: He was a big, long-haired guy who reminded me totally of Peter Steele from the group Type O Negative. He died not too long ago, so he could have been the ghost!
And don’t forget the blood handprint on Dalton’s sheets!
MA: I liked that, too.
During the first half of this movie, the scares were frequent and they were real. I loved the first half. I thought director James Wan did a terrific job setting this one up, giving it legitimate scares and a very stylish look.
However, as is the case with so many movies these days, the film goes downhill during its second half, as soon as the paranormal investigators arrive on the scene. The two men, Tucker and Specs, are silly geeks and they provide comic relief which, after such a strong frightening opening, seems way out of place here. The humor is almost jarring. It would have been like the classic HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), after Christopher Lee scares the crap out of everyone during the movie’s first half as Dracula, instead of having Peter Cushing arriving onto the scene as Van Helsing you get Jerry Lewis!
LS: Yeah, I don’t think they were all that necessary here. But I’m curious—is everything with you an old Hammer movie? How about a more current comparison. Some of our readers probably have no idea what you’re talking about!
MA: Which is exactly why I talk about the old movies, so people today don’t forget them. When I was a kid watching horror movies in the 1970s, I loved reading about the older movies.
But, anyway, more recently, imagine in THE WOLFMAN (2010) having the Scotland Yard inspector who arrives late in the game to hunt the werewolf played by Steve Carrell. It just doesn’t fit. Same with the geeky guys in this one.
LS: That’s better.
MA: Lin Shaye is fine as the chief investigator Elise Rainier, but at this point the movie gets bogged down in a silly narrative that I didn’t buy for a second, ridiculous stuff about wandering spirits, humans with the ability to leave their bodies and travel to a place called the Further. At this point the dialogue gets really dumb. It all starts to sound like a 1980s Steven Spielberg movie—the only thing missing is the sugary sweet John Williams music.
When INSIDIOUS was scaring the crap out of the audience during its first half, it was a rockin’ horror movie, but once it started to explain things, it became silly and contrived. One of the reasons the first half was so scary was it was chock full of spirits and demons. I wish as the movie had gone on, it could have remained focused on these spirits and demons and let them become a bigger part of the story. Let the demons continue to scare! It would have been a much scarier movie.
LS: I liked the second half.
Elise finally starts giving us answers. Everything from the fact that whatever these spirits are, they aren’t haunting the house, but something else, and she also fills in the blanks about events in the past that led up to all this, including some revelations from Josh’s mom. We suddenly become privy to everything from astral projects to red-faced demons, to other planes of existence.
MA: All of which comes off as contrived and forced. INSIDIOUS is a movie that would have been better without these elaborate explanations.
MEDIUM (in the background): Can you hear me now?
LS: I liked Elise, but, no matter how good a character she was, she isn’t half as cool as the dwarf lady from POLTERGIEST (1982).
MA: Do you have to mention POLTERGIEST? I hate that movie. It’s one of those 1980s Spielberg produced movies I was just talking about. Besides, I thought you hated it too?
LS: I do, but that creepy dwarf lady is the best thing in it. Hell, the ONLY good thing in it.
It was at this point that INSIDIOUS finally began to show some originality. Nothing ground-breaking, mind you. This movie isn’t quite exactly a breath of fresh air. But it at least takes us in some interesting directions.
MA: Really? A place called the Further is an interesting direction? I didn’t buy this direction at all. I half-expected to see HELLBOY roaming through the kitchen in search of a beer. It was just too much exposition at this point, and not enough raw scares, which we had in the first half.
(HELLBOY suddenly enters the room from the kitchen)
HELLBOY: You guys got any beer? I ran out of Tecate.
LS: Go away, we’re reviewing a movie here.
HELLBOY: I hate you guys! (leaves in a huff)
LS: Despite some interesting twists toward the end, though, I can’t recommend INSIDIOUS very highly. I mean, the acting and direction are fine, I’m actually a fan of director James Wan, even if I don’t think he’s made a really great movie yet. But we’ve seen most of this before. And when things start to show a glimmer of creativity, it’s not enough to save it.
MA: I completely disagree with your take on this one. I loved the first half but not the second half.
I loved the job director James Wan did during the first half of this movie. I’d give him an A+ for direction. He was pushing all the right buttons. The movie looks fantastic, and during the first 45 minutes or so, it’s absolutely full of fun scares. And within the confines of a PG-13 rating, he wasn’t going to be able to gross people out, which meant he’d have to be creative with his scares, and he was. Even during the second half, Wan still was doing some neat things with the camera.
However, as much as I liked the direction, I didn’t like the screenplay by Leigh Whannell all that much. He completely loses me in the second half with an unconvincing narrative and misplaced comic relief. He had me in the first half.
Yet, even during the strong opening, there were some problems. I thought the mom, Renai, was slow to freak out. The night she hears the whispers on the baby monitor, the whispers actually become a clearly audible booming loud shout from an obviously demonic sounding voice, and yet the next day she calmly says to her husband, “Something strange happened last night. I thought I heard someone in the baby’s room.”
Thought you heard? Lady, you need to get your ears checked!
LS: I dunno, the husband had a reasonable explanation – that it might have been interference or a crossed signal from another nearby house. Maybe someone was playing a joke on her.
MA: Some joke. Who’s their neighbor? Satan?
Also, I don’t know what kind of a teacher the husband Josh is supposed to be, as it wasn’t made clear, but it looked like he was a school teacher, and they’re living in an extremely fancy house? Not very realistic, especially in this day and age when funding for public schools is being cut left and right, and salaries are being frozen.
I thought the acting was fine. Patrick Wilson was fine as the dad, even though he’s absent from most of the film’s scary first half, as he’s always working late. I thought Rose Byrne was excellent as the mom, and I thought she gave the best performance in the film. Not that it was Oscar-worthy or anything, but she was very good.
I liked her character a lot, better than her husband, and I wish the movie had made her the central character involved in rescuing their son, rather than the dad.
MEDIUM (in the background): Can you hear me now?
MA: Towards the end, the scenes inside the Further were dark, foggy, and very atmospheric.
LS: Are you serious? It looks like someone just turned on a fog machine! It would have been nice if the Further actually looked like another world; if they’d only taken the time to really give us something fascinating and other-worldly.
MA: Well, there were a few scary things lurking inside that fog.
However, I though the ending of the movie was stupid and abrupt, and it did nothing for me.
All in all, my favorite part of INSIDIOUS was the work of director James Wan. In fact, to me, if there’s a reason to see INSIDIOUS, that’s it: Wan does a terrific job at the helm, and he gives the movie lots of scares during its first half before the film loses steam, getting bogged down in lots of contrived exposition.
But based on the strength of its first half, which I found a lot of fun and very scary, I’m giving it two and a half knives.
LS: Really? I give it one and a half knives.
MEDIUM: Are you two done blathering yet? I want to get back to contacting the spirits.
LS: Yeah, yeah. Keep your pants on.
One correction I have to make to Michael’s comments is that this movie isn’t very scary. A lot of the “scares” are downright silly. Including one scene where a young boy dressed in an outfit from the 1920s (oversized cap and coat) runs around the house and Renai chases him. There is nothing scary about this kid, and yet it’s all played out as if the director felt it was a very tense scene. Also, that demon with a bright red face and a forked tongue is meant to be scary, but it’s not. It looked kind of silly, even if there was a cool effect later on as it climbs walls.
MA: I disagree completely. Again, I’m giving credit to director Wan here. He made these scenes scary. It’s a very stylish first half.
LS: You really thought that scene with the little kid running around the house was scary? He didn’t even have a monster face or anything. He was just a kid playing hide and seek. I guess it doesn’t take much to scare you.
MA: When he leaps out of the closet unexpectedly, yeah, that was scary.
LS (laughs): Oh well. Will little Dalton ever wake up from his coma? Will the Lamberts ever be able to move to a house that isn’t haunted? For the answers to these questions and more, you’ve got to go see INSIDIOUS for yourself, although you may want to wait until you can rent it on Netflix.
MEDIUM: Shh! I hear a voice. It’s saying— it’s saying—.
LS: Yes? What’s it saying?
MEDIUM: It’s saying “Where’s the beef?”
MA: Where’s the beef? You must have tapped into that old lady from the Wendy’s commercials from the 1980s.
MEDIUM: There’s more! I hear—John Williams music playing in the background. I see a strange-looking dwarf lady and she’s saying something about the light.
LS: Let’s get out of here!
MA: Okay, folks, we’ll see you next week!
MEDIUM: And there’s a red-faced demon. He’s carrying a light saber—.
(MA & LS flee.)
© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives INSIDIOUS - two and a half knives!
L.L. Soares gives INSIDIOUS - one and a half knives!