by Steve Habrat
Two years ago, director James Wan took critics and audiences by surprise with Insidious, a ghostly funhouse that rose above the lowered expectations that surrounded it. Just two short months ago, Wan proved himself as a force to be reckoned with in the horror community with The Conjuring, a 70s-inspired haunted house throwback that became the sleeper hit of the summer and was hailed as one of the scariest films to come around in years. Apparently, there was no rest for the wicked. Tossed into theaters just in time for Friday the 13th is Insidious: Chapter 2, a slipshod cash-grab sequel that ranks as one of the worst horror films of 2013. What Insidious: Chapter 2 does prove, however, is that maybe Wan wasn’t the hack many thought he was when he was cranking out garbage like Saw and Dead Silence. No, it appears the problem is Whannell, who serves up a wretchedly muddled screenplay that desperately tries to explain nearly every little detail of the far superior original film. Even the cast, which is comprised of established actors and actresses like Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye, and Jocelin Donahue, seem completely perplexed and lost within the film they are starring in, causing them all to give some of the worst performances you may see this year. I don’t think it would surprise anyone if this cast were up for the worst ensemble at the upcoming Razzies.
Insidious: Chapter 2 picks up with Renai Lambert (played by Rose Byrne) being interviewed by a police detective about the mysterious death of paranormal investigator Elise Rainer (played by Lin Shaye), who was found strangled to death moments after Josh Lambert (played by Patrick Wilson) returned from the Further. Renai denies that Josh had anything to do with Elise’s death and she continues to insist that it was the spirit of a woman in a black wedding gown that was the one responsible for the murder. Renai leaves to rejoin her family, who has moved in with Josh’s mother, Lorraine (played by Barbara Hershey), while the police continue with their investigation. Just as life seems to be getting back to normal, Renai and Lorraine both have separate paranormal experiences that suggest the malicious spirits have not moved on yet. Meanwhile, Josh’s behavior gets more and more bizarre, suggesting that his body has been taken over by one of the most violent spirits wandering the Further. Frightened for their lives, Lorraine and Renai seek out the help of Specs (played by Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (played by Angus Sampson), the duo who aided with Josh’s trip into the Further the first time. They also track down Carl (played by Steve Coulter), Elise’s former partner who has encountered these spirits before.
The biggest crime committed by Whannell and Insidious: Chapter 2 is the fact that it resorts to rehashing the scares that worked the first time around rather than attempting anything new. While there are one of two scenes that will curl your toes and cover your arms in goosebumps, everything is way too familiar to really give this installment any identity of its own. To make things worse, Whannell’s script goes to great lengths to explain away all the scarier moments of the first Insidious. Did we really need to know what was knocking on the front door and setting off the home security system in the first film? Was anyone truly obsessing over the identity of that shadowy bride in back that kept appearing in the Lambert’s photographs of Dalton? It’s highly unlikely, but Whannell seems to think that everyone needs to know. Apparently Wan didn’t explain to Whannell that the lack of an explanation for that phantom manifestation, bump, or creak just down the hallway is scarier when you DON’T know who or what caused it. At least those who were let down by the first film’s ending can rest easy knowing that the Darth Maul spirit that crawled across the walls and made dolls doesn’t dare make an appearance.
When you’re not cringing over all the blue-in-the-face explanation, the acting will certainly have you burying your face in your bag of popcorn. Nearly every single actor or actress that steps in front of the camera gives a glaringly rehearsed or robotic performance, leading you to wonder if anyone really cared how this movie actually turned out. Wilson is at his absolute worst as Josh, the crazed papa from Hell who wields a baseball bat and stands in the hallways at night whispering to unseen figures that command him to kill. By the end of the film, you’ll be secretly hoping that The Amityville Horror’s George Lutz will coming barreling through the front door with an axe and show Josh who’s boss. Byrne is basically asked to wander around the new setting with wide eyes and fake tears as toys go flying through the air and piano notes chime suddenly. Coulter is all anxious shifts and awkward fumbles, a new character that could work if he had just the slightest bit of personality or courage. Whannell and Sampson return as the geeky paranormal investigators Specs and Tucker, who are here to break the tension when things get a little too spooky. It’s just a shame Whannell’s jokes are mothballed gags that will have you shaking your head. Shaye does an okay job, but its clear she is a bit baffled as to why she is even here. Hershey is the only one who really attempts to sell the absurdity and in the process, she delivers the only performance that is worth anything. The House of the Devil’s Jocelin Donahue shows up in a handful of flashback sequences that you wish would have been left on the cutting room floor. If you want to see some truly awful acting, just watch the opening flashback sequence of this movie. I couldn’t believe that the studio didn’t demand reshoots.
As far as bright spots go within Insidious: Chapter 2, the best parts of the film are the small nods to classic horror films that Whannell and Wan place throughout. Even though Wilson nearly destroys them, there are a few little tips of the hat to Psycho, The Shining, and The Amityville Horror. These nods could have been even better had Wilson actually cut back on some of the cheese. There are also a few scenes that pay tribute to the striking lighting schemes that horror fans admired at in Dario Argento’s Suspiria. This is unsurprising considering that Wan and Whannell cited Argento as a major inspiration for the first film. There are also a few stretches where Wan really finds a groove with the haunted house scares, but these are largely done in by jolt shocks or fake outs that just irritate you. As if Insidious: Chapter 2 needed anything else working against it, wait until your ears are treated to some of the film’s painfully awkward dialogue. Absolutely none of it comes across as natural and a good majority of it is unintentionally hilarious. Overall, it truly is a disappointment to see Wan slumming it like this, especially after crafting one of the most fiendishly frightening films to come along in quite some time. Insidious: Chapter 2 is a redundant and convoluted mess that nearly destroys the reputation of the first film. Hopefully, Wan has the good sense to back out of a third installment, as another Insidious film is inevitable. Come to think of it, the set up for a third film was probably the scariest part of Insidious: Chapter 2.
by Steve Habrat
There was a time when I thought that James Wan was a hack. In 2004, he failed to move me with his industrial indie Saw, the film that was responsible for igniting the torture porn craze that gripped the horror genre for a solid five years. While I’ll acknowledge that Saw offered a few clever surprises and a seriously wicked piece of rusty headgear, the film felt like a wannabe Seven that lacked the gloomy urban goth of David Fincher’s grotesque classic. It didn’t help that it was followed up with a string of pale and uninspired sequels (Wan only directed the first film) that stretched the premise to the breaking point. Wan offered up two more exercises in mediocre brutality (Dead Silence, Death Sentence) before he really made something worthwhile. In 2011, he made me a believer in his talent with his fiendish funhouse horror movie Insidious, a near perfect thrill ride that was tripped up by an overkill climax and a ghoul that looked like Darth Maul from Star Wars. It appears that Insidious was just a warm-up. A little over two years later, Wan returns to the horror genre with The Conjuring and he means business. The Conjuring doesn’t find Wan reinventing the haunted house horror movie formula, but it does find him at the top of his game and delivering the knock-out punch that horror fans have been waiting years for. Yes, this film is genuinely scary, folks.
The Conjuring picks up in 1971, with Roger (played by Ron Livingston) and Carolyn Perron (played by Lili Taylor) moving their happy family to an old farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island. As the Perrons settle in to their rural palace, the family begins experiencing a number of strange occurrences. At first, their youngest daughter talks about a new imaginary friend, they hear eerie noises throughout the home, their dog is terrified to come near the house, birds fly into the windows, they find strange bruises on their bodies, and they wake up every morning to find their clocks frozen at 3:07 AM. As the activity increases and becomes more malevolent, the petrified Carolyn approaches local paranormal investigators Ed (played by Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (played by Vera Farmiga) Warren about coming to their home and investigating the activity. At first the Warren’s are a bit hesitant, especially after their last case, which took a severe toll on Lorraine, but upon arriving at the Perron house, they uncover the home’s grisly past and quickly come to the realization that this may be their most horrific case yet, especially when the supernatural forces begin fighting back.
Proudly sporting the “based on a true story” badge, The Conjuring finds Wan refusing to hide behind this fatigued gimmick. He could have peppered his film with the same old lazy jump scares and then argued in an interview that the film is scary because it supposedly really happened, but he resists at nearly every single turn. There are loud bangs and there certainly are plenty of sudden jolt scares, but for each easy “gotcha,” Wan balances it out with a nerve-frying moment of bloodcurdling intensity. He starts out small, with faint bumps, thumps, footsteps, and bangs that would make Robert Wise smile. He then graduates to poltergeist activity, with the Perron girls getting yanked out of their beds while they sleep, doors slamming on their own, people getting thrown across the room, and Carolyn getting violently shoved down the cellar stairs. When Wan shifts his attention to the full-on manifestations, The Conjuring takes a bit of a hit, mostly because the spirits seem a bit too familiar. They have the usual gray skin, blackened eyes, and dusty period clothing, all something that you might have spotted in Insidious. A few of them are eerie, especially the young boy that appears in the music box mirror, but for the most part, you wish that Wan would have left them in the shadows. Thankfully, they don’t take too much away from the film.
While the first half of The Conjuring acts as a chilly ode to haunted house classics like The Haunting and The Amityville Horror, the second half of the film becomes heavily indebted to demonic horror films of the 1970s like The Exorcist. While nothing comes close to the horror we saw in William Friedkin’s classic, The Conjuring certainly doesn’t go soft on us. The climax is usually where these types of horror films collapse on themselves, mostly because the filmmaker is under the impression that they have to outdo themselves and bring the story home with a deafening bang. Wan was certainly a victim of this on Insidious with his maroon nod to famed Italian horror director Dario Argento, but on The Conjuring, he fights the urge to go over the top. The climax here is fabulously tame, with only a few special effects that keep us from totally buying into that whole “based on a true story” thing. There is some bloody barf, nasty burns, and demonic howls that even Linda Blair’s Regan would chuckle at, but Wan never lets the film slip. He puts several innocent lives at stake and he even threatens the sanity of our heroes, who have already been pushed to the brink once before. I’ll be damned if you won’t be holding your breath.
While Wan’s expert direction certainly makes The Conjuring a winner, the film’s stars do a remarkable job seeming natural and authentic for the camera. Taylor is spot on as the sweet Carolyn, a loving housewife who oozes affection for her family. She shares many wonderful moments with Livingston’s Roger, a down-to-earth nice guy trucker who is powerless to protect his family. Taylor and Livingston work overtime to make us really like them and their hard work pays off when the spooks come knocking. While Taylor and Livingston hold their own, they take a back seat to Farmiga and Wilson, who elevate their real life paranormal investigators to horror movie heroes for the ages. Farmiga is on fire as Lorraine, a levelheaded clairvoyant who fights the urge to scream bloody murder when one of the manifestations gets right in her face. She is immensely likable, especially when her motherly affection comes forth. Wilson’s Ed doesn’t emit the warmth that Farmiga does, at least not at first. It takes some time to dig into him, as he is perpetually all business in his lectures and interviews, only softening when his young daughter comes calling. Rounding out the cast is Shannon Kook as the Warren’s techie assistant Drew, who gets a chance to play hero at the end of the film, and John Brotherton as Brad, a skeptical local cop here simply to add a bit of unnecessary comic relief.
While there certainly are a few little things that The Conjuring could have done without, the film is just way too strong where it counts. The scares are not always accompanied by loud music queues and there is a heavy reliance on atmosphere to keep us on the edge of our seats. The terror is consistently held and the moments that threaten to become cliché are thrown off to keep us uneasy about what Wan will do to us next. The Perron household is convincingly done up to seem old and aging, all yellowing walls, big heavy doors, and long hallways shrouded in shadows. The outside seems frozen in a perpetual autumn, complete with a blackened pond out back, dead leaves blanketing the ground, and a gnarled tree that was perfect for a satanic suicide. It is clear that Wan understands that the house itself is as much of a character as the flesh and blood ones we are invested in. The nods to past horror classics are all slyly placed and Wan even dares to work in a tip of the hat to Alfred Hitchcock’s apocalyptic masterpiece The Birds. He does effectively play with the “found footage” craze a bit, giving it a retro edge that feels oddly fresh. Overall, The Conjuring is carefully crafted in vein of 70s horror films (get a load of that gloriously retro opening credit sequence) and offers up enough moments that will sear themselves into your nightmares for the rest of your life. In a time when the horror genre finds itself unsure over how to scare the audience silly, Wan reminds it that simplicity is key.
by Steve Habrat
You never forget seeing The Shining for the first time. You never shake the images of a pair of young girls coaxing Danny to “come play” with them. Or how about Jack crashing a ghost party and plotting with a dead waiter on how to dispose of his shining son? One of my favorites is the looping shot of a sea of blood pouring out of an elevator door that slowly opens. The walls and halls will run red with blood, murder, insanity, and terror. And “Heeeerrrreeees JOHNNY”? In many ways, The Shining is the definitive haunted house film, one that Stephen King criticized for not following his famed story line for line. Under the obsessive and perfectionist direction of one of the greatest directors to ever make films, Stanley Kubrick constructs and delivers a labyrinth of bone-rattling images and a slow burn narrative that will stay with you even if it does not follow the horror author’s epic tale. It will freeze your blood.
The greatness of The Shining is often overshadowed by the iconic performance from Jack Nicholson, who checks in to the Overlook Hotel as Jack Torrence, who on the surface appears to be a content family man, a teacher and writer who is exhaustively searching for inspiration on a new project. He applies to be the caretaker for the said hotel, tickled by the idea of complete seclusion. Churning below the surface is a raging alcoholic who has hurt his young song Danny (Played by Danny Lloyd) in the past after a night of heavy drinking. Jack’s loyal, cooing wife Wendy (Played by Shelley Duvall) also accompanies Jack to the hotel, rendered breathless by the natural beauty of the structure, which is also said to be built on an Indian burial ground. In the job interview, Jack is informed that there have been ghostly encounters in the lush hotel and a few years previous, another caretaker seemed to snap from cabin fever and went on a killing rampage, chopping up his two young daughters and his wife, then proceeding to stick a shotgun in his mouth and blow his own head off. Jack waves off the story, but soon after arriving, Danny has a telepathic conversation with the head chef of the Overlook, Dick Hallorann (Played by Scatman Crothers). Dick explains to Danny the significance of this gift, called “shining” and explains to him that he is also sensitive to the paranormal. As the family stays the harsh winter in the hotel, Jack begins to slowly loose his grip on reality and he begins to embrace the anger that lurks inside of him. The ghostly apparitions also start making themselves known, terrorizing Danny at every turn. As the winter storm howls outside, Wendy begins devising a plan to get Danny and herself to safety, away from dangerous Jack who seems to want to join insidious ghosts who reside at the Overlook.
When watching a film by Kubrick, it’s easy to recognize that Kubrick himself is in complete control of what we are seeing. Every shot has been labored over and has been methodically illustrated, seeing only what we are meant to see, and it signifies something, sometimes that thing is only known by Kubrick himself. Sometimes the shot seems to be a psychological photograph; sometimes it’s dabbling with the surreal. Whatever the shot is, it is always orderly. There never seems to be input from any other individual. It’s strictly Kubrick’s mind at play. The surreal order is creepy in itself, suggesting normalcy, but it’s the ghostly visions that pack the icy punch. They are the grotesque, unseen side to order. Take the scene in room 237, where a nude woman emerges from the bathtub and embraces Jack. The bathroom posses a clean, grounded look, only strange because of it’s uncanny color scheme. She waltzes toward him and kisses the deranged Jack. When he glances at the mirror, he sees the beautiful woman is actually a rotting corpse of an old woman cackling at Jack’s horror. Kubrick suggests here and throughout The Shining that normalcy is always mirrored by unpredictable horror. There are two sides to everything. What we perceive as common and what stares back unseen.
What we are really here for is the terror, and yes, we could deconstruct Kubrick’s nightmare all day, debating what everything means. The film will cause a few sleepless nights the way Kubrick springs terrifying visions on the viewer. Sometimes, he only shows us a terrified face, eyes bulging, rolling back in the head, accompanied by blasting rattles and shrieking musical blasts. It’s jump scares without being cheap. We don’t expect it, but Kubrick isn’t interested in simply startling us. While watching a documentary on the making of the recent horror film Insidious, James Wan discusses his use of jump scares in his film, arguing that while the film is heavily reliant on this technique to frighten, the way he applies it is always followed through. There is no gotcha moment or hollow spook. A ghostly visit, a strange specter, or any other apparition that creeps us out always accompanies the blast of music. There is never the fake scare where someone’s boyfriend jumps from behind a corner, doorway, etc. Part of me thinks he lifted this technique from Kubrick, who always blindsides us with an unnerving image. Two little girls block Danny from riding his big wheel through the twisting halls of the Overlook. There is a sudden flash of the girls dead in the same hallway with blood splattered all over the walls. You can’t argue that Kubrick surprised and then followed through.
The Shining is also bloodcurdling because of Nicholson’s ranting, flailing performance. He’s all unhinged grins and bogus reassurance that he doesn’t want to hurt Wendy; he just wants to bash her brains in! Talk about making every hair on your body stand at attention. He lumbers through the hallways, dragging an axe and hacking at doors to locate and chop up Wendy. Danny, in a trance-like state wields a knife and writes REDRUM on doorways. The fright comes from every angle as Wendy desperately attempts to hold everything together. Pretend everything is normal! But how can you when your son croaks, “REDRUM” and shows you a glimmering blade? The film climaxes in an iced over chase through a fogged hedge maze that, once again, mirrors the characters journey through the Overlook structure. It’s a maze of panic, madness, and bereavement.
The Shining makes exquisite use of its secluded location, promising no way out for the characters that inhabit it. The twist ending also promises to give the viewer the willies while turning the wheels of the brain. It’s an obsessive nightmare that is perfect to watch on Halloween. It has it all: deranged killers, ghosts, ghouls, corpses, and more. It’s Kubrick’s funhouse after all, and boy can he construct a house of horrors. He proved that he could do every genre and do it professionally and with confident expertise. A classic of the genre, massively influential, and a must-see for Nicholson’s performance, The Shining is a true, visionary work of art. It stands as a psychological puzzle that may never be solved and that is rewarding on multiple viewings. It reveals more and more each time you sit through it. That is filmmaking at its finest. Ranking as one of the scariest movies I have ever seen, The Shining is as warped and chic as horror gets. Grade: A+
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.