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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Three departures

I’ll inevitably miss some important stuff this week, but I wanted to quickly acknowledge the passing of three interesting figures who all made their presence felt in the world of movies and who’ve all left us in the last day or so.

* Zelda Rubinstein is best known as the diminutive character actress who appeared in all three “Poltergeist” films in the 1980s as well as numerous other productions and was also known as an activist on behalf of AIDS sufferers and little people.

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* Left radical historian Howard Zinn often rubbed me the wrong way in his articles but that can be a valuable service to a reader, too. In any case, there was no denying his provocative intelligence or his appeal to the  leftish masses and his status as a genuine hero to innumerable activists. His most famous book, A People’s History of the United States — which I would admit to having not read yet, except I could have my progressive ID card revoked for the omission — was referred to as a great book in Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Oscar winning screenplay for “Good Will Hunting.” Ironically, Zinn, a World War II bombadier and afterwards something close to a pacifist, detested Damon’s next film, “Saving Private Ryan.”

* Last but definitely not least in terms of cultural impact, the most famous of all literary recluses and the creator of the biggest movie hater in history of letters, J.D. Salinger, has passed on. Holden Caulfield may have hated Hollywood and his creator may have shielded him from adaptations, but, my God, how many of the cinema’s best known young male leads have a bit of HC in them? The Hollywood Reporter obituary I linked to mentions “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Graduate,” but it goes far beyond that. It’s kind of hard to even imagine, say, Wes Anderson’s first two films if The Catcher in the Rye had never existed.

The final irony of course, is that, without Salinger’s passing, we may finally see adaptions of “Catcher,” notes Dylan Stableford. And, what about all those books Salinger reportedly wrote but never published? Hollywood’s hunger for new properties from literary big names should never be underestimated.

  

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The Scream Awards go down the rabbit hole (updated)

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There was a time in this world when young people were frequently slightly ashamed of being bigger than average fans of horror, science fiction, fantasy, and especially comic books. I, personally, wasn’t embarrassed …and I paid a price. Those days may be over. In any case, the capacity crowd that showed up for Spike TV’s Scream awards, largely in costume and largely dramatically over- or under-dressed for a nighttime outdoor show after a very warm day, seemed more like club kids and less like the kind of uber geeks who become entertainment bloggers and film critics and stuff like that.

The Scream Awards are, in their fun/silly way, a big deal. Big enough to attract a good number of stars and even a few superstars like Tobey Maguire, Jessica Alba, Morgan Freeman, Harrison Ford, Johnny Depp and his living legend “Pirates of the Caribbean” muse, Rolling Stone Keith Richard.

I, however, am not such a big deal and was reminded of that fact when, prior to the show I found myself with the less fashionable members of the not-quite paparazzi on the “red carpet” (actually a checkered walkway) with my little digital camera and even smaller digital recorder device, wondering whether I’d really get a chance to ask a question of one of the super-famed folks, knowing that the only question I could think of at the time would be something in the nature of “What’s it like be the most notorious rock and roll star in the world, having your blood changed, and snorting your late father’s ashes?” That probably would have been inappropriate, especially if I asked it of Jessica Alba.

What actually seems to happen at events like this is that, if you’re a small-timer especially, most of the big stars either go through another entrance or walk right by you at warp speed. Meanwhile, folks who are a bit more anxious to meet the press find their way to you with the help of PR types. As an example, for about half a second, I was almost able to talk with actor Karl Urban, who did such a great job homaging DeForest Kelly while putting his own hilarious stamp on “Bones” McCoy in “Star Trek.” However, within a nanosecond he remembered he was in a big hurry and politely scurried off.

After a few odd reality show people I didn’t recognize, and the pretty young actress who assays the part of “Female Addict” in “Saw VI,” our first actual notable was statuesque model turned actress Tricia Helfer. Helfer is, make no mistake, a true superstar to TV sci-fi fans and is best known as Number Six, aka “the hot blonde cylon” on “Battlestar Galactica.” The actress appeared with her significant other, the owner of a British accent and a Giaus Baltar-style beard, but I’m sure that’s a total coincidence. I had a not terribly consequential discussion with her — lost because I apparently forgot to press the “on” button on my digital recorder. One would expect no less an effect from Number Six. UPDATE: Yeesh! As pointed out by my PH compatriot John Paulsen, the actress was actually Kate Vernon, who played the lady-MacBeth-like Ellen Tigh. It is true, all statueseque blonde women in shiny dresses look alike to me! My apologies to all concerned or unconcerned.

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Bullz-Eye’s 15 Best Horror Movies Revisited

With Halloween just around the corner, TV networks will be airing a non-stop selection of horror movies throughout the week. So which ones should you watch? Well, you can always revisit Bullz-Eye’s list of the 15 Best Horror Movies to help you decide. It not only includes scary classics like “The Exorcist” and “Halloween,” but more nontraditional picks like “The Shining,” “Alien” and “Jaws.” After all, it doesn’t have to include bogeymen in October to scare the living daylights out of you.

Curiously, although horror movies are cranked out faster than a burger and fries at McDonalds these days, there haven’t been too many new entries in the genre that would truly deserve a place on the list. There are certainly a few that would be up for consideration, including the original “Saw,” Neil Marshall’s cave-diving thriller “The Descent,” and the Spanish horror film “[REC],” but it would be difficult to knock anything off. Less likely suggestions might include the horror comedy “Slither,” Eli Roth’s hate-it-or-love-it “Hostel,” and the Swedish vampire film “Let the Right One In.” Of course, you could always get out of the house and see “Paranormal Activity” instead, because if our own horror-shy Bob Westal loved it (not to mention millions of other moviegoers), then chances are you will too.

  

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The new “Poltergeist” ad for DirecTV will give you the creeps

Haaaaaaave you seen the new DirecTV ad that features Craig T. Nelson reprising his role as Steve Freeling in “Poltergeist”?

I caught it last night, and…well, is it just me, or did it feel really creepy and exploitative to see the late Heather O’Rourke?

I don’t think it was intended to feel that way (nor, apparently, does O’Rourke’s mother), but at the end of the ad, when Nelson says, “That’s going to come back to haunt me,” all I could think was, “Uh, yeah, and so is Heather…”

  

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