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Insidious (2011)

by Steve Habrat

In these indolent times that are plaguing Hollywood, it’s such a refreshing experience seeing a film that is not a direct remake of an older, often times superior original. It’s usually an iconic film that studios use to simply milk money from our wallets. They repackage the film, tie it up with a big CGI bow, throw in half-baked 3D, and we flock to see it because we are familiar with it. If they aren’t desecrating an old gem, they are lifting the material from a book, comic book, or graphic novel. It makes me wonder if any of these writers or suits out there in the City of Angels remotely consider picking their own brains for a good story. The genre that especially can’t seem to help itself is the horror genre. It seems that absolutely no one can come up with an original and relentlessly scary little horror flick these days. Instead, studios just look to rebooting tired franchises whose knives and machetes are showing signs of rust (Yes, I am talking about you Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th remakes!).  It seems like every year we get one scary movie that is actually effective. Last year’s stylish American remake Let Me In was a standout. The year before saw the, in my humble opinion, good but not great haunted house thrill-ride Paranormal Activity. We’ve also seen an amped up remake of The Hills Have Eyes, the colorfully blood drenched Dawn of the Dead remake, the tribute to 50’s B-movie creature features The Mist, the claustrophobic monster movie The Descent, and the outstanding British zombie flick 28 Days Later, and the based-on-true-events chiller The Mothman Prophecies. That’s basically what we have had to work with since 2002. And three of those are remakes!!

While creativity is one portion of the problem, another reason why horror ultimately ran itself into the ground was the work of two men—James Wan and Leigh Whannell. They are the culprits who graced our movie screens with the torture porn clunker Saw. They ignited a frenzy of films that shamelessly bathed in body fluids and they also sparked a line of horrendous sequels that followed. While the only notable film in the series was Saw III, they influenced Hostel, Wolf Creek, and a slew of others that were less concerned about being scary and more concerned with making you squirm. And many of them were successful at making you cover your eyes but the genuine scares were non-existent. Yet in the past few years, torture porn has made itself scarce and horror has been attempting to embrace real fear again. It’s funny that the men who reduced horror to ashes, have played Dr. Frankenstein and risen it like a phoenix. Insidious is that phoenix.

Insidious is one of the scariest movies I have seen in quite sometime and is simply one of the best horror movies in years. Yeah, I said it. And it’s also original! Sure, it’s an unholy fusion of Poltergeist, The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Amityville Horror, but these days, we have to be carful when we criticize something that attempts to break new ground. Alas, Insidious does not but it sure makes a valiant attempt. Instead, Insidious conjures up some truly hellish images that are guaranteed to linger in your head for days after witnessing them. The film follows Josh (Played by Watchmen’s Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Played by 28 Weeks Later’s Rose Byrne) Lambert and their three children as they move into their new home. All seems well until strange noises are heard throughout the home, objects are moved, and one of their children, Dalton, falls into a coma (Ya know, the usual!). But after a seriously spooky night in their home, they begin to wonder if the reason their son has fallen into this enigmatic coma is supernatural rather than medical. The Lambert’s call in a group of paranormal investigators who quickly determine that Dalton is trapped in a ghostly parallel universe called The Further.

If it sounds like you’ve heard all of this before, you have, as Wan has crafted a loving tribute to the horror films of old. He throws reference after reference at the audience and one could almost make the film into a game of spot that horror reference. It’s all quite fun but it’s the 180-degree shift in the quality of the work here that is really quite impressive. Wan’s chiaroscuro industrial aesthetic still lingers but the film itself is much more patient than Saw. It feels like there is discipline here and I think much of that may stem from the producers who were also responsible for Paranormal Activity. There is no over-reliance on blood and guts (The film is rated PG-13) and instead relies on loud bangs, growls, shadowy figures, and sudden music blasts to make you soil your shorts. But Wan also fries your nerves through some seriously haunting images; most striking of all is a shadowy apparition standing behind a baby’s crib and a demon lurking in the corner of poor Dalton’s room. Even Whannell’s script provides a few blasts of heebie-jeebies. One scene includes a character describing a dream that she had and all I will say is that it turned my insides to ice cubes. It gives me chills just think back to it! This scene demonstrates the beauty of your imagination getting the best of you.

What’s even more impressive about the film is the performances that Wan manages to capture. He has positioned two very talented actors at the core of the film and it doesn’t hurt either that Barbara Hershey (Black Swan) shows up as a concerned grandmother. Lin Shaye pops up and provides a fine performance as the psychic Elise Rainier. While sometimes the acting does dip and head into cheesy territory mostly from his child actors, it’s forgivable. What does end up hurting the film and causes it to loose some of its momentum is the final act, which falls victim to the you-never-show-the-monster syndrome. It causes the film to descend into the fun house realm. Someone should have explained to Wan that it’s what you don’t see that ends up being the most horrifying.

While the ending suffers a bit, the film is still astonishing in how uncompromising it is in its attempts to send you screaming from the theater. It will get you at least once. The film sadly chooses the same path that the final minutes of Paranormal Activity did and embrace the CGI trickery. In Insidious, however, you overlook it because the final minutes of this demon are unpredictable. Just get ready for an I-did-not-see-that-coming twist. But the first three fourths of the film is so good, that Insidious haunts its way onto the must see list. The film also redeems any potential talent that James Wan and Leigh Whannell have and it leaves me intrigued for what they do next. I will leave you with is this: Any film that makes me walk into a darkened room and quickly flip on the light is one you have to see (Seriously, it really did that to me.). Insidious is an inspired creep-out that will haunt your dreams. Grade: A

Insidious is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Fright Night 3D (2011)

by Steve Habrat

To all the horror fans out there, you can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. The remake of Fright Night restores honor to the vampire genre and shifts it from the teenybopper chick flicks back to a jugular ripping good time. Granted, some of the weightiness that is associated with the genre is stripped away but the film packs enough blood, guts, and thrills to make up for all three of the Twilight abominations (and that Priest movie). I’ll forgive you if you had some doubts about this film. The original 1985 Fright Night is not the most well known fright flick in the genre but it does have a minor level of notoriety. Made during the surge of special effects, the film is now showing its 80’s crow feet and the remake is well aware of it. The original Fright Night is steeped in 80s pop culture and it’s only fitting that the amped up remake is a product of these times. Yes, the protagonists listen to Kid Cudi and Foster the People, wear throwback high-tops and skinny jeans, Peter Vincent Vampire Hunter is a Vegas magician act that is eerily similar to Criss Angel, and Jerry, the famous vamp, looks like he stepped out of the latest Diesel Jeans ad. Perhaps the filmmakers want this film to act as a relic in twenty-five years just as the original does today.

This spunky, vamp-com ranks among the recent remake movement as one of the best that I have seen so far. It sits nicely with 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes, and last year’s The Crazies and Let Me In. It pays a nice tribute to the original film while also setting itself a part for these ADD-plagued audiences. Charlie Brewster (Played by baby faced Charlie Bartlett himself, Anton Yelchin) has it all: popular friends, a smoking hot girlfriend Amy (Played by the smoking hot Imogen Poots), and a warm, loving mother (Played by the underused Toni Collette). His popularity is increasing at his local high school and he is leaving his nerdy past, along with his nerdy best friend Ed (Played by McLovin himself, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) eating his cocky dust. After one of Charlie and Ed’s best friends disappears, the two take it upon themselves to play detective and investigate. They make a shocking discovery that Charlie’s charming new neighbor Jerry (Played by a never better Colin Farrell) is really a vampire who is chomping through their town’s citizens.

If you haven’t been floored by the recent parade of sappy vampire books, tacky television shows, and subpar movies (except that chilling Swedish film Let the Right One In and the American companion Let Me In), Fright Night may be a bit of a tough sell. Yet the film breathes new life into the genre that Stephanie Myer drove a stake through with her creation of Edward Cullen. Sure, there is a romance here that will quench the thirst of the squealing teenage girls that will certainly flock to see this (the whole film is loaded with current pop culture nods), but this is actually an adult vampire vehicle with an effectively calm Farrell behind the wheel. I personally don’t think he’s had more fun playing a role in his entire career. He struts into scene and utters a breathy “Hey guy” which reduces Charlie to jelly. You chuckle every time he pops in but your chuckles are quickly silenced by the unpredictability that radiates out of him. Romanticized vampire he ain’t, especially when he rips a gas line out of Charlie’s back yard and sends a flame through it to blow up his house. He doesn’t even break a sweat when he walks to up to the burning house and coolly tells Charlie “I don’t need to be invited in if there is no house.” Let me tell you folks, it doesn’t get any better than that in a vampire romp. I wanted to let out a cheer.

Fright Night is a relentless fun house that is marred by a weak introduction. I found the awkward, cliché heavy chitchat at the beginning rather indolent. What smoothes these few waves over is the presence of such dedicated actors, all who appear to be confidently invested in their characters. I rooted for Charlie and I found myself hypnotized by the nerdy Ed. Amy is a character that could have been reduced to gratuitous sex appeal but Poots plays her with some assured, playful depth. I certainly can’t write this review without mention of David Tennant’s flamboyant Peter Vincent. He vamps it up quite nicely himself and almost gives Farrell a run for his money. The film certainly packs the gore, which will please the fans hungry for some wildly imaginative vampire slayings. Plus, it’s all in eyeball aching 3D. This was another downfall of the movie—the 3D does strain your peepers and I had to lift up my glasses to let my eyes readjust before putting them back on.

Fright Night is not an exceptionally scary movie going experience. You will not be left cowering in terror or enduring many sleepless nights. You will, however, have a blast watching this candy colored rollercoaster ride. If you are a diehard fan of the original, you should be left satisfied. Farrell deserves some recognition for his dedication to Jerry. I honestly would happily see it again just for his performance alone. Fright Night is not a great film but just a really good, really fun monster movie. You’ll overlook its flaws, especially if you are over the age of twenty and Edward Cullen is not your idea of a compelling bloodsucker. This film deserves three cheers for its savage gut punch to those pretty boys. Grade: B+

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