No Concessions: “Insidious” Knows What Scares You


Building word power at the movies this weekend is Insidious. This comes as a surprise, given that director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell built the Saw franchise, which, with its torture porn and tortuous backstory, is at best semi-literate. The last thing I expected them to construct was a gore-free horror film that, to borrow Google’s definition, “proceeds in a gradual, subtle way, but with harmful effects.” So they have, and it’s a genuine thrill ride, one that reduced a screening room audience of jaded New York movie critics to little babies crying for their mommies.

Not without complaint, however. “It’s just a horror movie,” I heard, and so it is. But it is a very good horror movie, one that doesn’t play us for fools (April or otherwise) and parents, particularly, will find it unnerving. An editor of my acquaintance also bellyached that it wasn’t gradual and subtle enough, like, say, The Innocents (1961). For these guys, though, it comes close–not Henry James, maybe, but not Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990), either. If you ask me a PG-13 horror movie that actually delivers the goods is always something to celebrate.

We are introduced to the Lamberts, Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) and their three young children, which already gave this father of two wee ones the shakes. That we are introduced to them minus video feeds and viewfinders is a plus; though the movie was co-produced by Oren Peli, of the Paranormal Activity spookshows, this isn’t one of those increasingly tiresome “found cinema” flicks. The Lamberts have moved into an old suburban house with settling noises that–courtesy of a shivery sound design and a hackles-raising score by Joseph Bishara–are more pronounced than usual. An encounter in the attic leaves son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) in a mysterious coma, and the besieged Lamberts looking for another fresh start. But the increasingly virulent apparitions that Renai begins to sense won’t leave the family alone. To paraphrase the tagline, if it’s not the house that’s haunted, then what is?

Insidious is a progression through horror history. The unease and dislocation recall Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and any number of ghost stories. Plot twists that I won’t reveal summon memories of The Other (1972) and The Exorcist (1973). Looking frighteningly younger than her movie son Barbara Hershey, fresh from haranguing Natalie Portman toward her Oscar in Black Swan, turns up as Wilson’s mother, bearing family secrets–you may recall her outstanding performance as a woman perplexed by a poltergeist in the underrated The Entity (1982). Speaking of Poltergeist that’s there, too, as medium Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) and two associates try to asssess the phenomena, which requires the disbelieving Josh to go out on a limb and enter “The Further,” a dark realm inhabited by phantasms that are one portion Freddy, a little 13 Ghosts, and part and parcel with the carnivalesque, jack-in-the-box horrors of the Saw movies. (Usually cast as grotesques by the Farrelly brothers, most memorably in Kingpin, Shaye is taut and no-nonsense in her role.)

There’s a lot of shuddery fun to be had in Insidious, and an uneasy subtext about parenting. Casting Wilson was a smart idea; the guy I enjoyed onstage as the fresh-faced lead in Broadway musicals like The Full Monty and Oklahoma! has at 37 aged into beleaguered dad roles, worried about jobs and kids while retaining vestiges of that youthful spirit. That wistful, not-quite-there quality, concealed under a protective layer of jockdom, was put to excellent use in Little Children (2006) and resurfaces here, with Simpkins repeating at his son. How do we keep our fragile families safe? Do we ever fully come to grips with the adults we’ve become? If a guy who seems as self-confident and secure as Patrick Wilson stumbles in crisis situations what chance do I have to succeed as a dad? Insidious notions indeed.

Straight to Hell: Two Oscars aren’t enough to protect Hilary Swank from lousy movies. Too “hard” for light comedies and the like Swank is stuck in a groove of second-tier Academy Award bait that doesn’t get bitten (Amelia, Conviction) and  now, in The Resident, a film that got the slimmest of token releases before going straight to DVD and Blu-ray. Adding insult to injury the Finnish director, Antti Jokinen, revealed that he wanted Jessica Alba for the part. That had to hurt.

But Jokinen, who co-wrote The Resident, wasn’t wrong. The role of a doctor, luckless in love, who takes the opportunity to move into a gorgeous Brooklyn loft on the cheap then pays dearly at the hands of her unhealthily obsessed landlord (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is better suited to a mannequin on the move than a consummate professional treading water. Considerable pedigree goes to waste: this is a new production from the reconstituted Hammer Films, which had a critical hit with Let Me In last year, and has as a talisman its beloved Dracula, Christopher Lee, in the small role of Morgan’s suspicious grandfather. Look at the below-the-line names, too–Oscar-winning costume designer Ann Roth, Oscar-winning DP Guillermo Navarro, and noted composer John Ottman all contributed to what is little more than a typical Lifetime scenario with “artfully” displayed nudity and masturbation, including a silly scene where Morgan (who co-starred with Swank under different circumstances in P.S. I Love You) nibbles on the sleeping doctor’s fingers. (You can tell he’s given in to his dark side when he puts on a hoodie.) Voyeurism was never duller: This isn’t a “landlord from hell” thriller, but a landlord from heck one, and as Jokinen favors the decor of the handsome set rather than the crannies and recesses where Morgan dwells it’s like horror ordered up from the Williams-Sonoma catalog.

The movie comes to home video in a clean anamorphic widescreen transfer (2.35:1 aspect ratio) with just one extra, a severely underutilized trailer that, typically, spoils its one good shock. Needless to say The Resident is at best a rental and not a buy.

Clearing the Deck: The arrival of my son in January cratered my home video viewing but with spring finally in the air it’s time to sift the pile. I can recommend Inspector Bellamy, the last film directed by Claude Chabrol, though the box art is misleading–it’s as much about the foibles of marriage as it as about the sleuthing of Gerard Depardieu’s detective. The tank-set Lebanon wore on me over time but that is the precise point of this strong antiwar movie. Oscilloscope continues to put out some of the more flavorful indies on the market, including James Franco’s turn as Allen Ginsberg in Howl and the affectionate if not uncritical documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within. Kelly Reichardt’s feminist Western, Meek’s Cutoff, arrives in theatres Apr. 8.

Other films have cult appeal. I’m destined never to get Gaspar Noe, a cause celebre among thrill-seeking cinephiles–I fully understood why members of my audience at the 1998 New York Film Festival loudly booed his debut feature, I Stand Alone, and I writhe in agony just thinking about his 2002 followup, Irreversible. Many voids are entered in his Enter the Void, some quite inventively–the camerawork, color, and sound design are frequently astonishing. But 161 minutes is long time to float around the afterlife with a dead drug dealer, an eternity, in fact, if his technique doesn’t grab you.

For the bird-brained is Birdemic: Shock and Terror which, God help us all, has made it to Blu-ray. I prefer to laugh with movies rather than at them, but the ones I do guffaw over usually have a trace of integrity or some crazy spark to them. I’m not sure what drove the talentless James Nguyen to put this singular vision onto the screen, or why audiences find its amateurishness funny for longer than 10 minutes. It’s excruciating, particularly when the Vietnam-born filmmaker has the bird-bedeviled romantic leads speak their dialogue in imitation of his broken English. Sad–but, OK, some of the unspecial effects did raise a smile.

I forgive Severin Films for picking it up, though, for the label distinguished itself by at long last making Santa Sangre (1989) available on DVD and Blu-ray. I saw the film when I lived in Hong Kong, with some trepidation: the infamous “head” movies of director Alejandro Jodorowsky, notably EL Topo (1970), left me cold when I saw them before midnight and substance-free, but positive press from the U.S. and my curiosity over his directing a horror movie got me in the door. I didn’t want to leave when it ended, for Jodorowsky had made the horror film of my dreams, overflowing with surrealist flights of fancy, a unique and deeply special movie that alights on The Unknown (1927) and The Invisible Man (1933) as it goes its own way. Mere description doesn’t do it justice. I’ll let Wiki give it a try, but words fail it. It’s as delicate as it is shocking–and its delicate qualities come as the greatest shock, as the filmmaker is careful not to let the violence of the storyline get out of hand and overwhelm its surprising tenderness. Set to an awesomely multifaceted score by Simon Boswell Santa Sangre is a movie of great and terrible beauty, a masterpiece, and a worthy object of cult veneration.

Sharing it, however, has been difficult since its release. The incredible story of the movie is told through an array of excellent supplements spotlighting Jodorowsky, 82, who has lived to see his finest work returned to audiences. Santa Sangre is surely one of the Top Ten releases of the year, and if one person reading this decides to see it based on my recommendation (it’s on Netflix Instant, too) I will have done my job.