Friday, September 9, 2011

Good Horror: Insidious

I have less than ten minutes of screentime!
          It takes a certain wisdom to make a good horror film. Until now, I never figured director James Wan to be a guy to have this wisdom. His previous films, Saw and Death Sentence, while moderately suspenseful, don't really provide any evidence of good horror. The first Saw film was, obviously, a hugely successful film that became a franchise, but the original film doesn't really constitute as a horror film. The Saw franchise is usually categorized as horror because of its shocking imagery and even more shocking body count, but the first film is actually closer to a police procedural than a full blown horror film. James Wan, however, believes that Saw is a horror film, and this is why I have always believed there to be a crack in his wisdom.

       Death Sentence, like Saw, is a film that James Wan would describe as a horror film. While I understand this categorization a little more (the pointless murder of your family is rather horrifying), Death Sentence is actually filmed like a pretty straight forward revenge thriller. Both of these movies have their charms, and Death Sentence in particular has that spectacular parking garage chase sequence (one shot!), but neither film really shows a horror director understanding the genre with which he works.

    This is why, last summer, I decided to skip Insidious. The film, starring Patrick Wilson (Hard Candy, Little Children) and Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids), was advertised as suspenseful, haunted house fare full of jump scares and creepy children. Who hasn't seen 454352 horror films with creepy children and lousy jump scares? Do we need another one really? So without having seen the movie or read the reviews, I used my anti-lazy-creepy-children-horror-movies-dar and decided to skip out on the fun.

     Fast forward to a month ago. I was reading an article on the best horror films of the last few years, and the writer would not stop gushing about Insidious. However, earlier in the article, he made a remark about torture porn that was less than favorable, torture porn being a genre brought into the mainstream with the help of Saw. This intrigued me. I looked around on other sites and found that Insidious is pretty highly regarded as a horror film. So I decided to give it a go.

     I know what you're thinking--"What a movie snob"

     That's only partly true. It's not that I'm a movie snob, it's that I am a horror movie snob. The horror genre is plagued by derivative crappyness, poor acting, poor funding, cheap scares, cheap gore, and boring formulas. A great horror film needs to understand horror. It needs to understand the audience's experience with horror. Like a good comedy, a good horror relies on surprise, originality, and execution. A poor drama can get away with more mediocrity if it is based on an "important" subject. Case in point-- Crash.

Here are some rules a horror director needs to be aware of:

  •     Good horror needs to be believable. We need to relate to the characters, identify with them, fear for them, and fear with them. 
  • The scares need to be real. None of this cat jumping out a closet nonsense. 
  • The characters need to be smart. If there's something horrifying happening in your house, move out of your house
  • If you're going to use a creepy kid, use him/her sparingly. However, I prefer you don't use one, because what else is there to do with that dead, dead subgenre?
  • If you're going to include demons, ghosts, etc, give them a motivation. If they haven't killed the protagonist yet, there had better be a good reason. Because what's stopping them? They've kind of already been punished.
  • We need to know the setting just as much as we know the characters. 
  • The characters need dramatic arcs. Static characters do not make for interesting horror. Or fiction for that matter. 

          Insidious does an excellent job of enforcing these rules. Not only does it follow these general guidelines, it also provides an excellent variation on the haunted house genre. The usual suspects are there from the beginning--an emotionally fragile mother, a distant father, a creepy old house, inexplicable noises coming from the attic, small children being creepy, but all of these factors turn out to be secondary scares. The movie uses our own knowledge of the haunted house movie against us. It expects us to look for figures in the shadows. It knows we expect a cheap, cat from a closet jump scare, so it sets us up for the jump scares without delivering.

        When the audience is met with silence and suspense, instead of a cheap jump scare, they prepare themselves for the fake out scare. This is when the jump scare doesn't occur, only for the character to turn around and notice their husband was standing right beside them, scaring them. Of course, we don't get a fake out scare either. We just get silence, confusion, uneasiness, and thwarted expectations. We know the film is horror because we saw the loud trailer, we know something terrible is going to happen soon, but it always seems just out of reach.

        So when the horror does start to creep in, about a third of the way into the movie, we have been looking for something in the shadows for almost half an hour. The tension has been building. The characters are uneasy. The atmosphere of the film becomes claustrophobic. The horror does not unfold in typical formula fashion. It does not make the audience jump with a loud noise every 5-7 minutes. It explodes at random. The film, in its most brilliant scenes, is ripped from its hinges at the most shocking and unexpected moments possible. The scenes don't startle you, they scare you. There are things in the house, but you can't see them. You can only catch glimpses.

      And when the family is finally, after over thirty minutes of buildup, sent into complete terror, they do what any intelligent person would do. They move out. And that's when the real horror movie starts.

     Insidious is an amazingly competent horror film. It does almost everything right. The scares are genuine, shocking, and original. The performances are naturalistic and engaging. The writing is smart and knowing. The film works. My only problems with it lie in the admittedly left-field third act, but the lead up is so smart, so original, that I can't even fault the film for it.

    I suggest you rent it or buy it as soon as possible. It is very, very worth the watch.

1 comment:

  1. i have been so iffy about this movie. now i know. thank you.