Insidious & Dead Silence

I haven’t been paying attention, and so I don’t know what the cool position is on Insidious. I know that it was kind of a big hit, so it’s probably cool not to like it, but I hopefully have the excuse of ignorance when I say that I caught it over the weekend without very high expectations, and actually sort of loved it!

First off, yeah, it’s kind of scary. Mostly, it makes good use of the “there’s someone in a place where someone shouldn’t be” kind of fear, which is always pretty effective, though it undercuts itself in that department by overplaying its hand several times. A shapeless figure pacing on the balcony is terrifying. That same figure appearing in your bedroom and turning out to be a stringy-haired guy in a trenchcoat? Less terrifying. But while the scariness is what most people talk about when they talk about Insidious, it isn’t why I loved it.

I loved the parts that are probably the parts that most people hated, if they hated it at all. I loved the theatricality of it. I loved the sudden tonal shift near the middle of the movie. I loved the ghost hunter guys with their homemade equipment and their bickering. I loved how comic-booky it all became, especially as it neared the home stretch. I loved that this was a simple haunted house movie that had an internal mythology, and by internal mythology I don’t mean “explanation for why the house (or boy, as the case may be) was haunted,” but rather I mean an entire internal mythology, complete with underworld and demon figures. I loved the way the title came up, and I loved that the movie escalated weirdly from a really quiet, unstylized thing into the crazy crap of the last half-hour or so.

I didn’t love the “the terror continues” ending, but I will give it this over other such obligatory endings that I’ve seen over the years: at least they set it up.

Fundamentally, there were missteps, probably lots of them, but none of them really impaired my enjoyment. In fact, a lot of the time they sort of increased it. After watching it I compared it to a dark ride, you strap in and the movie goes along, hitting both scary and goofy, without ever really falling too firmly on either side of that equation. If you want to know how much I liked it, I’ll tell you this: I’m considering watching Saw (which I hated) again, just to compare James Wan’s weird vaudeville horror aesthetics from movie to movie. And I liked it enough that I did rush down to the video store to check out Dead Silence (also directed by Wan), which I’m a little surprised I hadn’t seen earlier because, frankly, haunted ventriloquist dummies!

While Insidious owed at least a structural debt to Poltergeist, Dead Silence is just as beholden (if not moreso) to a different staple of the horror movie landscape; the guy who goes back to his hometown after suffering some trauma. Think Darkness Falls, only better.

After watching Insidious and remembering Saw, James Wan seems like the perfect guy to make a ghost story about a murdered ventriloquist seeking revenge through her dolls. And he kind of is. The movie suffers a little from inertia in spots, and from having a blank slate as a protagonist, but it pays off big in aesthetic. It’s a good mid-point between the other two movies I mentioned, spookier than Saw and gorier than Insidious, and Wan and co-writer Leigh Whannell (who also worked together on both Saw and Insidious) put together a story that’s equal parts ghost story, Gothic story, and Goosebumps story (the killer puppets, the rhyme, the fact that the town is called Raven’s Fair and has a lake called Lost Lake). The town actually bears mentioning, because it’s the most Gothic town in all of Gothic County. Not only does our protagonist hail from a rich family that lives in a forbidding manse, not only is there constant ground fog and a doll cemetery, but the aforementioned Lost Lake has a ruined theatre built out onto the water that you can only get to by boat. As far as aesthetics go, this thing is aces.

Really, I found the whole thing pretty likable. It’s not as close to a home run as Insidious, but, like Insidious, I fell in love with the weird Gothic-by-way-of-Darkness Falls-by-way-of-Goosebumps tone of the whole thing. And it also pays some good dividends in gruesomeness by the end, with the requisite creepy corpse/puppet imagery. Plus it has the benefit of playing “recognize the b-list actor,” as it’s staffed with folks like True Blood‘s Jason Stackhouse, Adelai Niska from Firefly, Mark Wahlberg’s brother, and professional “that guy” Bob Gunton.

So, I guess the point of this is that I may kind of be a fan of James Wan. I wonder if this means I have to re-watch Saw now after all…

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