Top critical review
34 people found this helpful
on July 21, 2011
As the title implies, I have very mixed feelings about this movie. I didn't go into it with high expectations. I've learned not to do that with horror movies anymore. Especially ones that are touted as "the next [fill in the blank]." Once this movie got rolling, though, I became very excited. The first half was excellent. It was tense, atmospheric, and downright creepy. I am, admittedly, a jaded old horror snob. I haven't been legitimately scared by a movie since I saw "The Exorcist" for the first time, when I was nine (and that was 22 years ago). On the same token, I also do not judge a horror movie by how "scary" it is. I judge it by the atmosphere presented and whether or not the writing and film-making capture and hold my attention. If the movie can get a few jumps out of me in the process, that's a fun plus... But it's not the sole criteria by which I evaluate a horror movie anymore. To his credit, James Wan really showed his chops as an editor and director in the first half of the movie. And Leigh Whannel seemed to have put together an excellent story that melded supernatural horror with very real horror (especially if you're a parent). The music also added a lot to the overall feel. It wasn't your standard synth drones that have become the hallmark of every horror flick made after 1970. They actually had real orchestral instruments, and some great dissonant violin that made my spine feel all twisty.
Yes, it was all very derivative. Overall, the first half of "Insidious" was basically a hybrid of "The Exorcist" and "Poltergeist," as many have already noted, and there were also elements of "Flowers in the Attic," which I have not seen noted... But it was so well executed that any unoriginality was forgivable. And, besides, if you're gonna rip *anyone* off, you may as well rip off the best! The first half of the movie presented believable characters in a scary situation that was made scary by what you didn't see or what you barely saw, and did not over-rely on rubber monsters or obvious CG effect that ultimately detract from the overall chill factor. It was a total throwback to classic horror movies, that had me on the edge of my seat with excitement. Not just excitement for what was happening on-screen, but excitement for the genre as a whole.
Then, about half way into the movie, Darth Maul made a guest appearance. Well, maybe not *actually* Darth Maul... But a "demon" that looked a lot like him. It was all downhill from there.
The latter half of the movie became a straight-up cartoon. All the great set-up and intensity that was established in the beginning was pushed over like a house of cards. It started with an out-of-place, overtly comedic pair of over-the-top nerdy ghost hunters (one of whom uses a modified ViewMaster to see ghosts... I s**t you not). When Lin Shaye's psychic character came into the picture, I had some hope. Lin is a veteran actress who really knows how to control the screen, and her character seemed interesting enough. She even flirted with the idea of sending her two ghost-goobers away, which made me think: "Ok. Cool. The comic relief was here to lighten the mood, so that we could be once again slapped-around with the horror stick when we were just getting comfortable." Alas, that was not the case, and this film's equivalent of Jar Jar Binks was in it for the long haul. (Wow! I'm really racking up the "Phantom Menace" references here, aren't I?)
The rest of the movie did the exact opposite of what the first half had established. It took all of the ghosts and brought them into the green-filtered light of day, in all of their overly-made-up glory. The whole thing took on an atmosphere similar to the yearly spookhouse that the local YMCA puts on for Halloween. But the thing that makes the spookhouse fun and scary is that you are actually in the middle of it, stumbling around in the dark and wondering who is going to pop out at you next. "Insidious" didn't have that same value, since it was just a guy on a screen stumbling around in the dark and the camera angles made it pretty obvious when and where someone was going to pop out at him. Frankly, it was boring. Now, don't get me wrong. The in-your-face monster atmosphere can work in a movie. It worked for the "Evil Dead" movies. It works in slasher movies. Heck, it even worked in the contemporary version of "Thirteen Ghosts." But the thing that made it work there is that the threat existed of the monsters actually *doing something* to the person whose face they are getting into. When monsters gets all up in your grill, they have to spew something, or attack, or try to swallow your soul, or something. The ghosts/monsters in "Insidious" basically just popped up in front of the hero, made a funny noise and an ooky face, then backed off. It was like a haunted game of Whack-a-Mole. Ultimately it came off as more silly than scary, and totally invalidated everything that the first half of the movie worked so hard to set up.
As for the ending: I won't spoil it, but I have mixed feelings about it too. On one hand, it made perfect sense given the way everything had been set up. On the other hand, it wasn't all that creative. Movies ending this way have become the standard for "edgy" horror in Western film-making, but haven't actually been "edgy" for about half a decade because it's what everybody does. It's often said that a bad ending can ruin a good movie, and a good ending can justify a bad movie. This movie proves that a mediocre ending keeps a movie mediocre.
Given their history together, I suspect that Wan and Whannel wanted to make a vastly different movie (they created the "Saw" franchise, after all), but the studio wanted a PG-13 horror movie, and so the writer and director toned it down accordingly. Unfortunately, the tone-down came across as a water-down. Honestly, if they had stuck to the format that they established in the beginning, and built it to a climax that way, this movie could have been great and nowhere near an R rating. "The Others" did this exceedingly well, back in 2001. Wan and Whannel obviously know how to make a good, unsettling, psychological horror movie. Maybe next time they'll be consistent about it.
Let's try to end this on a positive note. The first half of the movie was excellent. The music was great. I give props to the director for using human actors, lighting, and camera tricks to tell his story, and not falling back on crappy CG. The first half of the movie shows that there is still hope for the Hitchcock school of horror. And, even in her sixties, Barbara Hershey is still gorgeous. So, good going on all of that. On the whole, I give this 2.5 stars, out of 5. It had a boatload of potential, but sadly fell flat.