SXSW 2011: Insidious

James Wan and Leigh Whannell may be responsible for jumpstarting the most successful horror franchise of the last decade, but the duo has failed to recreate that level of success in anything they’ve made since then. But with the release of “Insidious,” it looks like they’ve finally cracked that nut, because the film is a creepy and atmospheric supernatural horror film that plays a lot like a modern day “Poltergeist” with a decidedly retro aesthetic. Though the film relies a little too often on cheap scares and loud musical cues to terrorize the audience, “Insidious” is a legitimately scary movie that will not only reinvigorate Wan and Whannell’s careers, but the kind of traditional horror films that “Saw” made redundant as well.

Josh and Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) have just moved their family into a new house when oldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) bumps his head while exploring the attic and slips into a coma. The doctors can’t explain what’s wrong with him, so they move Dalton back home to be cared for by his mother. When Renai stars hearing strange noises and seeing frightening visions of ghosts lurking around the house, however, she becomes convinced that the place is haunted. But after they move again only for the angry spirits to remerge, she begs Josh to call in a specialist to investigate – a trio of ghost hunters that informs the couple it isn’t their house that’s haunted, but their son.

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As someone that tries to avoid horror movies whenever possible, it’s difficult to gauge how “Insidious” will play to diehard fans. Though it doesn’t really revolutionize the genre like “Saw” did, it has so many genuine moments of terror that cowards like myself will be on the verge of a panic attack throughout. It’s been a while since a movie has scared me as much as this, and it will likely cause nightmares for others. The film does lose some of its bite in the final act when one of the characters enters an otherworld called the Further that looks like a twisted version of Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride, but by that point, Wan practically has you eating out of his hand; the scares are that effective.

He also makes some very daring stylistic choices – from the grainy film texture to the intrusive score – that evokes the horror films of the 70s and 80s. But while the movie looks great (especially considering it was made on a shoestring budget), it’s lacking in a strong central performance from Byrne or Wilson. In fact, they both seem to sleep walking through their roles compared to the lively performances of the film’s supporting cast, including character actor Lin Shaye as the paranormal medium and Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson as her clumsy assistants. Their introduction midway through injects a “Ghostbusters”-like playfulness that allows Wan to include some comic beats without lessening the weight of the situation, and it really adds a layer of enjoyment to the experience. After all, horror films are supposed to be fun to watch, and though “Insidious” trips up a bit in the end with a lame and predictable coda, it’s still a highly enjoyable piece of scare-you-shitless cinema that even a non-fan can appreciate.

  

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Monday night trailer: It’s “Insidious”

About six or seven years back, James Wan and his writing collaborator, Leigh Whannell, cooked up the “Saw” franchise and, I suppose, bear some responsibility for the whole trend of horror films that were more about trauma and less about fun — or at least my idea of fun. I can’t talk too much because my infamous squeamishness has prevented me from actually seeing “Saw,” but Wan and Whannell appear to be headed back toward the kinder, gentler and, I understand, even a bit funnier spook flicks that were once the standard.

Kevin Jagernauth may be a skeptic, but as of now I’m looking forward to “Insidious,” which really does look like my kind of horror flick. This trailer indulges in some trendy trickery to pump up the scare-factor, but I can see it’s beating B-movie heart. Oren Peli is one of the producers, hence the “Paranormal Activity” connection.

  

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A Roundtable Chat with the Cast and Director of “Saw 3D”

In 2003, director James Wan and screenwriter Lee Whannell put together a short film featuring a man with a rusty metal “reverse beartrap” on his head and a creepy-looking puppet in hopes that someone would take a chance on this film script they’d written.

Someone did.

Eight years later, the “Saw” franchise is reportedly coming to a close, and although the history of the horror genre – specifically, the fourth “Friday the 13th” film – has taught us that no chapter is ever truly final, they’re at least trying to make us think they’re going out with a bang, eschewing a straightforward “Saw VII” and instead offering fans an additional dimension of gory fun with “Saw 3D.”

Although the studio is predictably taking a pass on providing press screenings for the film (since everyone knows it’s going to be critic-proof, anyway), director Kevin Greutert and a trio of actors from the cast – Cary Elwes, Costas Mandylor, and Betsy Russell – turned up at the New York Comic Con to do a series of roundtable interviews for members of the media.

The demand to chat with these folks were significant, as you might imagine, so in order to maximize our time while working with minimal space, both the interviewers and the interviewees were split into two groups, with the interviewees switching groups after 15 minutes.

First up, Costas Mandylor and Kevin Greutert…

Journalist: So there’s, like, a volcano eruption of 3D films out there now, with the whole “take that and run with it” Hollywood attitude. What sets this one apart from other 3D horror films?

Kevin Greutert: Well, for one thing, this film was actually shot in 3D. We didn’t do a post-conversion like a lot of the other movies that have come out lately. I think that shooting it in 3D makes all the difference in the world, so it just looks that much better. This was shot with state-of-the-art cameras that are a lot more lightweight than any previous 3D films, so we were able to preserve the “Saw” style of doing a lot of stuff handheld and keeping the camera moving around a lot and very dynamic. Because technology is advancing so quickly, we were able to just take advantage on all aspects.

Journalist: Has 3D changed the blocking of the set and what you’re actually doing in the film?

KG: Yeah, it affects the way we block the scene, because we want to maximize the feeling of depth in the image, even if it’s not an in-your-face moment where stuff’s flying into the camera. We still wanted it to look as rich and full of space as possible.

Journalist: At what point in the production process was the decision made that the film was going to be in 3D? Was that from the outset, or did that happen…

KG: It was decided…that was probably the very first decision made on the film, and I had actually hoped even before we made “Saw V” to direct “Saw VI” in 3D but wasn’t able to make that work. So by the time “Saw VII” came along, now there’s enough infrastructure in terms of theaters that are equipped with 3D equipment to go forward, and…yeah, no one ever thought twice about doing it in 3D.

Journalist: How does 3D enhance the storyline?

KG: Well, I don’t know how much it actually plays into the story. There’s a bit of self-reference in the opening scene of the movie, which is the first “Saw” scene that takes place in broad daylight, with a big crowd watching one of Jigsaw’s big contraptions at play. There’s, I think, a little bit of an implicit message about horror audiences watching voyeuristically. 3D, I think, just kind of takes that to another level.

Journalist: Costas, what keeps bringing you back to this franchise?

Costas Mandylor: You know what? In a way, luck. And the character seems to have worked. And, you know, when you collaborate with people like Kevin and a couple of the other guys before him, and you know what you’re doing together, it’s a comfortable situation where you don’t have to get really… (Hesitates) I mean, some guys in life are a pain in the ass, and they die. “Saw” does that really easy. I committed to it as best as I could, and spending time with Tobin (Bell) and seeing how committed he was to keeping a certain standard, not letting the fans down was really important to him, so it wasn’t just going to a gig, doing my thing, and leaving. I actually paid attention. There’s a great example of…when I first started, I think it was in “IV,” he had a great idea for a scene and he called me at, like, 11:30 at night. He goes… (Does a Tobin Bell growl) “Hey, Costas, are you awake?” Jigsaw’s calling me at midnight on the phone. I’m in trouble here. (Laughs) I went to see him…reluctantly…but we spent some time together, and the scene…that was a really long scene that we did, with the gun to the…? It just worked beautifully, because he put the effort in and forced me to be okay with putting in my ideas as well. So I’m still here ‘til the end of this one, and…we don’t even know the endings. But for now, I’m in.

KG: We have more control over Costas by not letting his character die. (Laughs) We hold that over his head every year.

Journalist: But that doesn’t keep Tobin from coming back!

KG: (Laughs) He has more screen time dead than he did alive!

Read the rest of this entry »

  

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Hollywood writers contributing video game story arcs

Feeling dejected because bigshot producers won’t give you the time of day? Think the film industry is mired in films with unoriginal story lines? Are you trying to break into Hollywood? Do you already work in Hollywood? Well, good news! Video game developers are now looking to others sources, most notably Hollywood screenwriters and established authors, to pen their games’ story arcs.

Scribe Chris Morgan (“Wanted,” “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift”) is the latest to make the shift, signing with Red Eagle Games as the story director for a series of upcoming games based on Robert Jordan’s “The Wheel of Time” books.

“There are a lot of good writers in the games business,” says Rick Selvage, co-founder of Red Eagle. “However, I don’t think stories have been the compelling driver in many games to date. Game play has been the thing that has motivated people to buy. We believe story is going to become more important to players.”

Morgan is hardly the first screenwriter to make the jump to the gaming world. James Wan, executive producer of the “Saw” series and the scripter of its first and third installments, is penning the videogame adaptation of the slasher films. David McKenna (“American History X,” “Get Carter” and “Blow”) wrote the script for Vivendi’s “Scarface: The World Is Yours.”

The hunt for quality writers doesn’t end at the film world. Chair Entertainment is working with science-fiction author Orson Scott Card on “Shadow Complex,” due for release on Xbox Live on Aug. 19.

Rather than simply adapting one of Card’s works, Chair approached the author with the basic idea of a story: a near-future civil war in the U.S. Card was asked to come up with a way that such an event might happen. Card then wrote a book, “Empire,” that established the universe of the game. Chair, meanwhile, built an action game that could exist within the world Card created.

It’s so interesting to me how all these forms of entertainment are integrated. As technology advances, production companies are witnessing the need to have the most talented people involved in the creative process. Magazines, blogs, TV channels, and YouTube channels all provide commentary that is viewed by millions of consumers. The gatekeepers are everywhere and their expert opinion — honed by years of nerdiness despite a popular medium to express it — now have a larger influence than ever before. Red Eagle knows “The Wheel of Time” series has a rabid fan base. Since many of these fans may comprise the video game market, they need the game to engage with players much in the same way the book does with its readers. If the game disappoints its fan base, the gatekeepers will let the public know and sales will drop. Fact is, flashy graphics don’t cut it anymore. In the advent of role-playing games for PC, traditional video game developers see the upside of a strong story. I never really got into video games, but I’ve seen bits from the new “Resident Evil” and can see the time put into creating sympathetic characters and an interesting plot. And who better to pay to have that done for you than actual writers. Makes sense to me. I hope gamers are appreciative.

  

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