In theory I’m all for a horror movie like Insidious. It’s cheap (a reported $1.5 million), it gets its scares the old-fashioned way (the only blood in the whole film is the gory handprint of a demon¹), and I could see very few, if any, effects that were born in a computer. Director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell may have made the original Saw, thus unleashing a seemingly ceaseless franchise on the public, but they aren’t entirely about torture porn; their previous collaboration was 2007’s fatally silly Dead Silence, which also went in for old-school creeps and creaks. The best I can say of Insidious is that it’s better than Dead Silence. I would like to encourage Wan and Whannell — as if they were hanging on my every word anyway — to continue in this splatter-free vein by handing Insidious a glowing notice. But I can’t. Maybe next time.
The demons in Insidious, or malefic spirits, or whatever they are, could be whipped up in a couple of hours in time for a Halloween party. In a way, that’s kind of cool. Wan and Whannell seem to have studied what kind of visuals will freak us out when barely glimpsed. They want to take us back to the makeup-chair sorcery of the old Universal monster classics. And it works, at first, but boy, would I like to see Insidious without the soundtrack. Here, as in Dead Silence, the score SHRIIIIEKS every time a paranormal menace pops up, and it gets to be EVERY BIT AS ANNOYING as it is to READ THIS SENTENCE. If, as a director, you feel you need booga-booga music this badly to put over a scare, it may be time to rethink your approach. John Carpenter, the modern master of the musical “sting,” used it sparingly and thus more effectively. Even the famous shock in 1942’s Cat People when the bus hisses into the frame would’ve been diluted if something like it had pierced the soundtrack every ten minutes.
What we have here, as in Paranormal Activity (whose director, Oren Peli, is a producer here), is not a haunted-house movie but a haunted-person movie. A little boy lapses into a coma, or something; it’s unlike any coma the doctors have ever seen. One scene, wherein a home-care worker teaches the boy’s mother (Rose Byrne) how to operate his nasogastric feeding tube, carries an authentic pang of helpless despair. We read it in Byrne’s face: So this is how it’s going to be. I did not ever want to need to know how to do this. Byrne also keeps hearing and seeing threatening things, though her husband (Patrick Wilson) doesn’t. Nevertheless, he acquiesces and they move out of their newly bought house into another. The weird sounds and sights continue. Experts must be called in, in the form of psychic Lin Shaye and two goofballs who reminded me of Dwight and Ryan from The Office as ghostbusters.
Shaye, perhaps best known for her farcical turns in comedies by the Farrelly brothers (though she was also in the original Nightmare on Elm Street), gives a fine serious performance here as a perfectly pleasant, non-batty lady who happens to have expertise in the spiritual or astral world. But the script turns her into Explainy McExposition, and during a key scene she is asked to sit wearing a gas mask connected to her assistant’s headphones — this actress truly has no embarrassment switch. Neither do the filmmakers, who try to make Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” a manifestation of dread (as if it weren’t creepy enough) and set up the last act as an astral quest through a lot of fog, during which some ominously grinning, Lynchian spirits come from everywhere.
Sadly, I don’t think this sort of literalized, physicalized terror works as well in the spectral genre as it might have decades ago. Especially when the head demon, or hungry ghost, or whatever, looks like what he’s called in the credits: “Lipstick-Face Demon.” In that respect, Diane Ladd smearing Revlon all over her face in Wild at Heart comes out the scarier by far. Most of David Lynch’s stuff does, really, despite Wan’s wan attempts here to emulate the master. Then again, Lynchian horror derives its charge from the inexplicable. In Inland Empire, the sight of rabbit-headed people exchanging gnomic pronouncements in a static wide shot while a laugh track bellows irrelevantly is terrifying (and funny) in a way that the rational waking-life brain can’t pin down. Wan and Whannell would spend ten minutes making Lin Shaye explain it all, and then send Patrick Wilson out into the fog to punch the rabbit people.
¹ I’ve since learned that the handprint is supposed to be lipstick. So: no blood in the movie whatsoever.