Monday, April 11, 2011
Tiptoe through The Further with Insidious (I)
I guess there was always something kind of scary about Tiny Tim singing “Tiptoe through the Tulips” – though it was scary in a funny way. In the genuinely frightening film Insidious, however, director James Saw Wan turns this silly song into a chilling, literally hair-raising cue for two very frightening moments in a film that’s full of them.
With its lurid main title frame and its non-reliance on an overwrought musical score to signal a demon jumping out of a closet, Insidious allows those restless wraiths and demons to show their horrible faces when you least expect them. In addition, Wan starts out slowly. He opens brilliantly with black and white shots of rooms in an old house strewn with packing boxes. A family has just moved in.
Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) unpack and settle in while belongings go missing and things go thump in the night and their two boys have trouble sleeping. Ah, the house is haunted! Not so! After the first subtle creaks and shadowy figures, the family moves away – a neat joke on all the horror movies in which the family grapples with demons but stays in the frickin’ house against all logic – and it’s clear that the haunting has followed them.
When Josh’s creepy mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), calls in the paranormal experts, the film turns for the first time to a couple of laughs. We get a weird parody of Ghostbusters in the form of two nerdy specialists (writer Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson) equipped with inexplicable gizmos. But once the elderly-lady psychic (Lin Shaye) starts communicating with Josh and Renai’s haunted, comatose son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), the comic relief is over. Seriously scary stuff happens as Josh embarks on a journey into The Further, a dark region populated by ghosts and demons lining up to take over his son’s empty “vessel.”
Josh’s journey through a lightless murk teeming with scary things to the bizarre realm of The Further is one of the best sequences I’ve viewed this year. Much is made of this dark void and the entities that drift through the obscurity. The puny lantern Josh carries seems strangled by the darkness, and this accentuates the threat. At the core of the murk lies a bizarre limbo of lost souls. Here, creepy images, "Tiptoe through the Tulips," and a weird tribute to Saw make this a hellishly frightening place to be.
Wan does a lot of things right. Refreshingly, he keeps the camera steady – no shaky handheld effect; no camcorder point of view; no dependency on CGI-produced gruesomeness. A drawback might be the "I" in the title and the film's cliffhanger ending. I prefer one-off horror movies, but a sequel could succeed if it employs Wan's talent for dark lighting and dark figures placed in the right place at just the right time. As the bedeviled couple, Wilson and Byrne offer invested performances that always draw our sympathies for their plight, and we readily identify with their terror of demons in dark places.