Friday, April 15, 2011

Insidious Is As Insidious Does

The definition of insidious is: “awaiting a chance to entrap, treacherous. Harmful but enticing. Or…of a disease: developing so gradually as to be well established before becoming apparent.”

Insidious” is an intriguing title. Screenwriter Leigh Whannel (“Saw” and “Saw II”) drew on his memories of “Poltergeist” to structure his story, with a few minor changes here and there. However, this script isn’t as good as the one Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, and Mark Victor wrote for “Poltergeist.” Further, “Saw” notwithstanding, while director James Wan does what he can with the script, he’s no Tobe Hooper.

The older house we see a young couple move into is quite attractive. It’s a much nicer house than the one that looks just like its neighbors in “Poltergeist.” This old house has an open central staircase, which is divided into half landings allowing for stops and starts as the adults individually run up those stairs to respond to cries from above. These staring stops are what passes for suspense in the early part of the film. Of course, the house is mostly wood, which creaks nicely. Trees older than the house creep up close to the windows in the wind, making it just the right setting for a haunted house story. And the attic appears to contain things the last owners did not clear out….

The family that moves in is young – Renai, thin as a rail, appears slightly nervous and tries to write songs. She is a good mom, very well played by Rose Byrne. Josh seems to be a nice guy, leaves much of the unpacking to his wife, but is at least appreciative as he goes off to work and leaves her alone with the baby. He’s rather dull, actually, played by Patrick Wilson. They have three children. As these parents are younger than those in “Poltergeist,” so are their children. And instead of the disturbances in the house centering on the youngest child, here it is the eldest child, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), whom we meet when he gets up early with his mother and they look at a photo album with snapshots of Renai when she was younger -- but none of Josh. The photo album is a very tired ploy, but at least it’s earned later.

Dalton, who is drawn to that mysterious attic, falls, appears fine, then fails to awaken next morning. Medical science is not helpful beyond saying it doesn’t seem like your standard coma. The comatose boy, with wires and tubes and monitors, is set up in the house, where a visiting nurse gives instruction to an ever more fragile Renai.

Boxes are not where they ought to be, books are dislodged from the shelf. Sounds are heard over the baby monitor, something flashes by interior and exterior windows. Initially these plants hint of good stuff to come. “Insidious” has some moments of nifty frights in this house, and while Josh is not around much to see the issues – he stays much later in his grammar school classroom than he logically would, nods out over his computer there, so he’s clearly avoiding going home – he takes his wife’s fears seriously and they move to another, smaller, newer house.

But the house was not the problem. Josh’s mother Lorraine did not help unpack at the first house, but she shows up at the second. Lorraine (played by Barbara Hershey – after her last mother in “Black Swan,” this one’s nothing special) gazes at a pretty standard family photo of Josh, Renai, and the two boys – no baby yet. She is surprised that Renai got him to pose for a photo. We remember there are no photos of Josh as a child. The two women are rather distant in this not at all homey kitchen scene, implying a less than warm relationship between the wife and the mother of Josh, or perhaps between the actresses. Yet Lorraine is supportive because she’s quite certain Renai is not imagining anything. She brings in an old friend to investigate.

In “Poltergeist,” when the two guys walked in with equipment, we took them seriously. In “Insidious,” in walk two nerds with some lame equipment. These guys have watched “Supernatural” and “Ghost Hunters” and tried to emulate television and built their own equipment. The characters are bumbling fools played by worse actors (one of them the screenwriter). This is someone’s attempt at humor falling flat.

Lin Shaye plays Elise, the “medium” in this film. She has a fabulous face, long and narrow, and she makes us take Elise seriously. She recognizes Josh, whom she apparently knew as a child, although he does not remember her. Elise learns pretty quickly that it’s not the house that’s haunted – it’s their son Dalton. That’s no spoiler, it’s in the trailer. The spoiler is that he’s a “traveler,” that is, he unknowingly travels by way of astral projection, although he thinks he’s just dreaming. And she knows this because Josh did it himself. Spoiler Alert: Elise shows Josh and Renai photos of Josh as a child – in the background of each and every one is a creepy old woman with fuzzy features and demonic eyes, gradually moving closer to him. Review definitions of the word “insidious,” above.

Funniest bit: Elise, when trying to talk to the absent Dalton, wears a gas mask. It is connected to the headphones worn by the guy taking down her words, who chooses to do so with something resembling a charcoal pencil. This caught my wandering attention, since it was totally inefficient. Just use a Sharpie -- the charcoal stick does not have the panache of Stephen King’s Black Warrior pencils.

I don’t think the makers of “Insidious” could quite make up their minds what this film should be. Their version of "Scream" perhaps? Or an homage to “Poltergeist?" Just the basic cast list is all too similar:

Husband Josh (Patrick Wilson)
Stay at home Wife Renai (Rose Byrne)
Three kids
Medium Elise (Lin Shaye)
2 guys with equipment

Husband Steve (Craig T. Nelson)
Stay at home Wife Diane (JoBeth Williams)
Three kids
Medium Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight)
2 guys with equipment

Even once the astral projection theory is revealed, Whannel doesn’t veer from the tried and true “Poltergeist.” He just substitutes something called “The Further” for the Native American burial ground. “The Further” is a place where astral projectors wander and sometimes get lost, as Josh did as a child, and as comatose Dalton has done now. Where “Poltergeist” horrified us with the hellish realm where the actual child was imprisoned and wreaked havoc on the physical house (not to mention the pool!), “Insidious” tosses a few people about in the new house, then goes back to the first house and shoots the “horror” scenes there, hoping against hope that lighting effects will make up for the lack of imagination used in creating this alternate reality. And by the way, “The Further?” Really? That’s what they came up with for this netherworld, dreamworld, etherworld, otherworld, dark dimension, lost dimension, la-la-land? Mr. Whannel needs a dictionary and thesaurus.

If Mr. Whannel and Mr. Wan didn’t want “Insidious” compared to “Poltergeist,” they shouldn’t have copied so much of it. If they meant it as an homage, they fell short. Byrne and Shaye are very good, the rest of the cast merely serviceable -- except for the screenwriter. All in all, “Insidious” was disappointing.

If my response to this film appears harsh, consider this: I still remember the night, back in 1982, when I first saw “Poltergeist.” Once home alone, I went to bed, turned out the light, then shrieked when my long braid appeared to move on the pillow next to me. After seeing “Insidious” last night, I slept just fine.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer – or maybe I’ll stream “Poltergeist” and watch a really scary movie….

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