Review of the Year : Insidious

Maria Olsen is an actress/producer working in Hollywood and has appeared in such films as Paranormal Activity 3 and Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief and was kind enough to offer up her thoughts for the 2011 Review of the Year.  Maria is currently producing the Independent horror film Live-In Fear which is due to start filming in February and can be backed right [here] so please take a look.  Also check out her page on IMDB for full listings.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 103 mins
Director: James Wan
Starring: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins
Genre: Horror
Format: DVD
Country: USA/Canada

Most online dictionaries define “insidious” as something along the lines of “slowly and subtly harmful or destructive”.  Synonyms for this little used word, which comes from the Latin for “ambush”, include treacherous, devious, sinister and underhanded, and, on the whole, this gives the reader the idea that a thing that’s insidious is not a very nice thing indeed…which would be correct…

Perhaps it’s the opening shot of the upside-down living room lamp that gives viewers their first clue that James Wan’s Insidious is going to be something out of the ordinary, or perhaps it’s the carnival-creepy music, or perhaps it’s simply the ghastly grey face hovering at the back door and belonging to an entity waiting to choose its time to enter a little boy’s bedroom.  Whatever it is, this film’s deliciously eerie and subtly demonic tone is set in stone before its title card is even up on screen.

Red, black and white have also always been the starkest and most unforgiving of colors, so their use in the film’s opening credits is both inspired and inspiring.  As the film progresses, the continuing use of black, white and red – with crimson being used most effectively in one of the story’s biggest scares – evokes, respectively, the desolation of a damned and forgotten ghostly realm, the innocence of a young boy’s soul and the cruelty of a possessive spirit.  These visions remain with the viewer long after the film has ended, and that’s where Wan’s true genius lies.

From the film’s very first scene – where our leading lady (very ably played by Rose Byrne) walks cautiously down the stairs in what could almost be footie-pajamas – it’s noticeable that Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell have rejected the usual done-to-death horror-drawcards of bravely endowed women walking around in revealing nightgowns covered in buckets of blood and have, instead, embraced a sophistication that’s rarely seen in today’s commercial horror offerings.  The “smart” horror is a commendable genre, and more filmmakers should take a leaf from Wan’s and Whannell’s books and emphasize suspenseful plots that are cleverly molded and intricately woven over the by-now-boring blatant torture-porn of a Hacksaw XIV, a Hotel IX or whatever the genre’s latest uber-bloody offering may be.

The story’s premise is, on the face of it, remarkably simple: a young boy falls into a coma, and it’s up to his parents to save him.  When, however, repressed memories, vengeful spirits with unguessable agendas, geeky techs and harrowing hauntings are brought into the mix, things get more and more complicated.  The plot complications never spiral out of control, however, and Insidious is actually remarkable in that it seems to have no plot holes whatsoever, always stays true to its own internal logic and always keeps the viewer engrossed in the tale and rooting for the good guys.  Whannell also keeps the door open for a possible sequel – which, given the quality of the first installment, is a good thing – and audiences can only hope that any sequel will be treated with as much respect as the original was.

For those who prefer their horror films to be socio-politically relevant, Insidious doesn’t disappoint.  Parallels can be drawn between the gradual breakdown of the on-screen family – whose first born has been attracted by the brighter, but ultimately empty, lights of a far-off realm – and the gradual breakdown of both the modern family unit and our entire society.  Every day we are confronted with stories of people who have been seduced by the bright lights of consumerism, by the all-pervasive instant gratification promised by our oh-so-public social media and by the ephemeral Kardashian-type fame that can come and go in the same instant, and this goes a long way towards explaining why the image of the strong father figure going in search of his wayward offspring pushes so many buttons in the collective American psyche. What IS incredibly scary, however, is that it is none other than this “strong father figure” who, ultimately, can’t be relied upon…  It is, however, possible for horror lovers to enjoy Insidious without stopping for one second to think of consumerism, capitalism or any other “ism”, as the story stands true as a good yarn despite any parallels that it may or may not have to the fable of a crumbling society waiting for its iconic leader to draw it out of a false dawn and into the true light of day.

As far as the film’s overall tone goes, there are several unusually creepy constructs used in the story, which only serve to increase the film’s attractiveness to those horror fans who are tired of cliché and who are looking for that little bit extra.  These include the left-field use of that old standard and top-ten hit of 1929, Tiptoe through the Tulips, the ingenious stop motion photography-like effects in the bloody black and white twin scenes and the extremely unsettling image of Elise Ranier, portrayed by the impeccable Lin Shaye, wearing a World War I gas mask.  Undoubtedly, though, the visual highlight of the film is the scene in the demon’s sewing room, where the viewer is offered glimpses of prancing Pinocchio-like puppets and weirdly alive mechanicals while the big bad himself sharpens his claws in preparation for the final battle.

As far as performances go, there are simply no weak links, but special mention should be made of the two juvenile leads, Ty Simpkins and Andrew Astor who play Dalton and Foster Lambert respectively, as well as the geek-tech twins Specs and Tucker played by Whannell himself and Angus Sampson.  The film’s undoubted coup, though, was being able to cast veteran name Barbara Hershey, most recently seen in the psychotic stunner Black Swan, as Lorraine Lambert, the matriarch of the afflicted family, and she brings a classiness to Insidious that it otherwise may not have had.  Kudos must go to casting directors Kellie Gesell and Anne McCarthy for making the Hershey connection possible.
Technically, Insidious is more than up to par, and Directors of Photography David M Brewer and John R Leonetti must be commended for their creatively atmospheric and seamlessly smooth shots.  Art department, set dressing, hair and makeup, music and special effects – and all other departments! – should also not be forgotten, as they all contributed to making this film the deliciously creepy experience it is.

So, apart from a few slight continuity gaffes - which hardly serve to detract from the story - and kid-actors who occasionally spike the camera, Insidious manages to be what, these days, so few horror films are: intelligent without being pretentious, creepy without being clichéd and visually beautiful without being gimmicky.

Insidious should surely be included in anyone’s Top Ten Horror Movies of 2011 list, and thanks and congratulations must, as usual, go to veteran indie horror producers Oren Peli and Jason Blum for catering to their audience’s needs and for doing it so well.

Although “insidious” may mean “subtly harmful”, the film most definitely is not, and horror lovers of all ages should watch it and give it a chance to weave its insidiously beautiful spell.


James Gracey said...

Such a great review, Maria. You've totally nailed why this was such a unique film - and one of my own personal favourites from last year. I loved the restrained pacing and otherworldly atmosphere. And some of the shots throughout have ingrained themselves upon my consciousness for all time. I've read a lot of reviews that criticised the ending - when the father enters 'the further' - but I thought these scenes were some of the most disturbing and strangely beautiful; the likes of which I haven't seen since Lucio Fulci passed away.

All the best with your Live-In Fear project! :)

John Baxter said...

Absolutely have to echo James' sentiments, wonderful review. Thank you very much for taking the time out to add your contribution to this week.

Maynard Morrissey said...

Fabulous review for a fabulous movie. This was definitely one of last year's greatest and most impressive horror movies. Creepy as hell from beginning to end.

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