Insidious (2010) James Wan

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I have a theory about modern horror movies. These days (lets say 1990s and beyond), PG-13 horror movies are actually scarier than R-rated movies. There are of course, tons of exceptions but in general, these movies need to actually be scary rather than just relying on being gory. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for the blood and guts, but that stuff isn’t really scary. In this 2010 flick Insidious, James Wan shows us that you don’t need lots of blood to scare the shit out of us. A good ending would have been nice though. Oh well.

Let me back up just a bit. Insidious is actually really scary, for the first hour or so, but then I think they show us a little bit too much. Wan has done a good job building up something scary but not really letting you get a good look at it. And that’s what we want. He gives you just enough to let your brain fill in the gaps. I guess it’s hard to bring that kind of movie to an end. Wan has tried to make it something more than it had to be and that internal horror-in-your-own-mind effect didn’t last through the ending. At least not for me. Also there are some issues with originality (read: plagiarism). This movie is basically a remake of Poltergeist with 10% Paranormal Activity, 10% Betelgeuse and 5% Star Wars Episode 1 (Remember Darth Maul? The main demon looks like him but with hooves – lame).

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Anyway the movie is about a nice little family- Mom, Dad, and three little kids -who just moved into a new house. After a few minutes of fairly formulaic haunted house stuff – banging on doors, boxes moving around, voices calling to you from up the stairs – one of the kids falls into a mysterious coma and mom starts freaking out. Of course, dad thinks she’s crazy but he still agrees to move into a new house. Nobody seems to mention the financial aspect of the second move to a really nice house, even though he’s a public school teacher and she’s a stay-at-home-mom who writes admittedly bad piano music and they have three kids,- one of whom is racking up some serious medical bills being in this coma for several months and basically having the set of Scrubs in his bedroom.

So of course the haunting stuff follows them to the new house and even starts to escalate and they decide to call in a psychic medium to see if she can help. Remember the creepy, little,  “This house is clean” chick from Poltergeist? This lady is the opposite of that. She’s super jolly and friendly and I think her character wasn’t really handled right. I think this is where the movie starts to turn. She’s got a couple of ghost buster dudes on her staff who come in with special equipment and  black lights to search for ghost jizz or whatever. Unfortunately, these guys are basically used for comic relief and I think they take the mood of the film up when it should be going down. Anyway, the friendly neighborhood psychic spots Darth Maul in the house and they decide that they need to go into the spirit world to pull the kid out of his coma. Don’t worry, Dad, who’s been an unrelenting douche bag up until now, has the special gift that allows him to travel into the spirit world and search for the kid.

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This is where the movie takes it too far. Like I was saying before, it started off subtle and creepy and cerebral but the climax and the ending just got kitschy and clichéd. Wan took what was building up a horror in our heads and tosses it out the window just to replace it with hackneyed old-time record music, doll heads, and a demon who looks like the most mediocre of all the Star Wars villains. The spirit world they travel to is sort of cool, until they get to what looks like Pee Wee Herman’s rape dungeon. The final scenes just fell flat to me and the characters had multiple opportunities to escape but they just stood around or tried to hide instead of running to safety.

Now, the good parts of this movie are really good and the bad parts are just a little bit bad. Overall, I still like this movie. There are some legitimately creepy things going on, and even though many of them are somewhat boilerplate for horror movies like this, Wan executes them like a pro. Faces looking through upstairs windows, people walking around the house and disappearing, the whispering voice in the baby monitor- all handled really well. The whole movie is really unsettling to look at. Everything just looks scary. And of course there’s a nice little twist at the end too. You basically know something is going to happen but it would be tough to call this one.

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So which takes over, the home run of atmosphere and mood and creepiness or the flaws in the structure and the plot holes that distract you from what’s going on?

  1. Is it scary: 8- The way it’s shot and the overall mood of the whole thing make this one a knock out in the scariness department.
  2. Originality: 4- Wan has drawn from some other sources but I think he does it in a way that still brings something new to the audience. No big points, but it’s not like I felt cheated.
  3. Blood:  2- Almost no blood. Like I said, that’s not what this one was about.
  4. Believability: 4: Dad caves and buys another new house after they just finished unpacking? Nope. Instead of running to safety, homeboy turns and hides under a bed allowing the demon to catch up to him? Nope.
  5. Setting Cinematography: 8- Like I said, this thing just looked scary. From start to finish.

Final Score: 26/50

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Saw (2004) – James Wan

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If it wasn’t for the fact that James Wan’s 2004 ‘torture porn’ flick Saw had spawned a series of increasingly shitty sequels, I’d say I really like it (which I actually do). The plot is fairly simple (in broad strokes at least) but still clever and original. I’ve never been a fan of those ‘torture porn’ movies like Hostel and Saw 3 through 7 or whatever. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for slashers and even over-the top goriness is fine with me, but I don’t really enjoy watching a movie that revolves around people getting slowly tortured and killed without some good reason. It’s like hot sauce. I’ll dump a gallon of the hottest toxic, nuclear waste you can find on my food, but it’s got to have good taste too. If all you can taste is hot, what’s the point?

Anyway, this movie is not what I just described. It’s definitely hot, but it’s got the flavor to back it up, if you will. It’s directed well and the cast is (for the most part) right on. Wan has struck a great balance between creepy and downright terrifying. And to boot, there’s a full on murder mystery developing throughout the whole film. It’s smart, imaginative, original, and scary as hell. And though I’ve seen Saw at least twice before, I found myself still interested in what was happening in the story.

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The movie opens with two guys who wake up chained to pipes in a dilapidated old basement. One of the guys is Cary Elwes (the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride). Oh, and there’s a dead guy with a gun in his hand laying in a pool of blood in the middle of the room. The two guys slowly put together some clues and figure out that someone has kidnapped them and put them there to teach them a twisted life lesson. They each find a little cassette tape and find out that if Elwes’ character doesn’t kill the other guy by 6am, that the kidnapper is going to kill his wife and kid. Among some other tools and weapons, the guys each have a hacksaw that doesn’t seem like it can cut through anything in the room except for possibly a human femur…

About half the story takes place in that room and the rest is basically flashbacks that slowly unveil the plot and let you know how the guys showed up here. One of the main side plots is that of the police detectives who are searching for the “Jigsaw Killer.” We soon find out that he’s the guy who locked up our heroes in this basement.  As the plot builds, so does the suspense and the horror. The flashbacks show you a bunch of other traps that Jigsaw has gotten people with. Finally the flashbacks catch up with the main story and there are a couple of big twists. First you’re like whaaaaat? And then you’re like WHAAAAAAAAAAT? The last half hour is super intense and exciting. And the ending just keeps getting better and better.

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The score and the sound effects are a big part of the feeling of the movie. Throughout the film, the sound effects are so real and unapologetic. It makes you feel like you’re really there in a condemned warehouse, soaked in blood (yours or somebody else’s). And the score is a mix of industrial/metal some dark, intense, and creepy instrumental that builds and crescendos with the plot. Just perfect.

The movie really is good but it sets the stage for a whole sub-genre that can’t match it. I know a lot of people like these movies but none of them live up to this standard for me. It’s dark, brooding, unsettling, disgusting, and at some points, hard to watch. But that was the point. It does all this without just leaning on the crutch of torture and blood. In a sense, it uses that stuff to augment the story, not the other way around. I think that all the sequels focused on the torture part and not on the story and that’s why they can’t live up to the original.

But how does Saw fare against the rating system:

  1. Is it Scary: 7- The whole feeling of the movie just scares you. It’s a chilling concept. And it’s not supernatural so it could happen to you in real life.
  2. Originality: 9- This movie was really the first of its kind and it spawned a long line of imitators.
  3. Blood: 7- Not the highest score, but it’s still pretty gross. It’s like watching the nightmares of one of those forensic doctors on CSI who autopsies murder victims.
  4. Believability: 7- other than a few lines of dialog and the logistics of some of the situations, it all felt fairly authentic to me.
  5. Setting/Cinematography: 9- Maybe the best part of the movie in terms of scariness and mood. The whole movie just feels and looks creepy and unsettling. You’re scared before anything even happens in a scene.

Final Score: 39/50

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