Yesterday, a friend and I (one of the ones who was sick enough to watch Human Centipede III (Final Sequence) with me) did a marathon of all three Insidious movies, front to end (ugh… I really need to stop it with the Human Centipede faux pas… once those movies get into your head, though, the only thing that will get them out is time (and maybe some therapy)). Both of us had already seen the first two “chapters” (to use the writer, director, studio’s vernacular) in the series… though, we’d only seen them a single time, both when they originally premiered. Therefore, we felt it would be a good idea to polish up on the franchise… in the end, I don’t feel like it was a waste of time… don’t get me wrong, there were any number of things we could have done with our time that would have been more productive (go to work, keep trying to get that article published, read a book, watch the Texas Chainsaw Massacre for a second time in 24 hours), but we could have also done something a lot less productive (I’m looking at you Devil’s Pass). This was a surprise, because my original reaction of the first two films in the franchise was lukewarm. Now, before moving on I want to make it clear that I am speaking about the series as a whole… without doubt, the third chapter is the weakest… but more on that later.
First, I have a few words to say about PG-13 horror movies… and those two words are “go away”… no, “stop it”… maybe “you suck”… I don’t know… but, you get the idea. This may be because I am a child of the 80s and as such the vast majority of the horror films I was raised on (save the original Poltergeist) were hard-R’s. Whatever the cause of my bias, I never-the-less feel that there is one major, (nearly) universal shortcoming of this sub-genre of horror movies. They rely much too heavily on the jump-scare, which I think is the cheapest gimmick in modern horror films. I think we need to be clear, being startled is not the same thing as being scared. Here’s the difference, the startle will go away once the adrenaline has left your system… a truly scary image or scene will stay with you… sometimes forever (see my first post). A startle is easy to achieve… a scare… that’s something most horror movies never achieve. Also, these are not, necessarily mutually exclusive concepts… there are plenty of jump-scare moments that are also scary (I always think back to the opening scene of The Grudge (a PG-13 horror movie, by the way) and the last scene of The Blair Witch Project).
The reason I had to use the modifier “nearly” in the last paragraph when I was speaking about the PG-13 horror movie reliance on the jump-scare (or, more accurately, the jump-startle) is because of the first two Insidious movies… there are plenty of jump-scares in these movies, but there are also some genuinely frightening moments (especially in the first movie). Again, I really think the first two movies are pretty solid. This is probably due, in large part, to the fact that they were able to get solid actors (a pre-Bridesmaids Rose Byrne and a post-Angels in America Patrick Wilson). Here’s what the first movie has going for it.
- It turns the haunted-house horror movie on its head. The vast majority of these films have the lead female character experiencing a few supernatural occurrences and either chalking it up as something off about the house (nine times out of ten the wiring is blamed) or telling her partner (read: husband) about it who writes it off. In this film, she demands they movie… and he listens to her (but, of course, moving doesn’t solve anything).
- The first scene that uses the song Tiptoe through the Tulips is genuinely creepy and frightening. The director (a pre-Fast-and-the-Furious-franchise James Wan) does a masterful job of creating a horror movie magic trick… he has you focused on one side of the frame when something suddenly happens on the other side. This is one of the combo jump-scare/genuine-scare that I was talking about above. It sticks with you.
- The last thirty minutes or so of the film has a similar feel to Poltergeist. In other words, it begins to take on an adventure movie feel. For example, the medium (played deftly by Lin Shaye) introduces us to a well-developed set of rules about the ghost-realm (named “The Further” here). In addition, once we get a glimpse of “The Further” it looks (and feels) like another movie… like some combination of a Jim Henson and Guillermo del Toro film. The weird thing is that it works.
The second movie, also directed by Wan has quite a bit going for it as well:
- There are several more of the magic-trick scare/startles that stick with you (though nothing as amazing as the Tiptoe-through-the-Tulips scene in the first one).
- Also similar to the first one, the movie doesn’t feel only like a horror movie. Specifically, the writer (Leigh Whannell, who also plays the character Specs) weaves two interconnecting plots. One of these plots has a more mystery-movie feel to it. This accomplishes two important things. First, this does wonders for the pacing of the film. Since it doesn’t have the predictable plot points of most haunted-house horror movies the film flies by. Second, it avoids the trap of most sequels (be it horror, comedy or other): just do the same thing over again… only bigger!
- Finally, the way the Wan and Whannell interconnect the first film and the second seems like it was planned from the start (which, based on my very brief internet research, does not seem to be the case). I don’t want to say anything more as to not ruin the surprise.
At the same time, though, there are a couple of shortcomings in the second film that weren’t present in the first. Specifically, there were enough haunted-house movie clichés that I started to get taken out of the film. Here are a couple of random cynical thoughts I had while watching:
- “It’s always the creepy closet at the foot of the bed.”
- “Who hears about a patient killing himself only after working a full shift?”
- “This town only has super creepy, super old Victorian houses.”
- “I’m really not a fan of them suddenly incorporating hand-held camera stuff.”
The point is not to nitpick the movie to death… all I wanted to demonstrate is that nothing like this was going through my head while I was watching the first movie.
Composing my thoughts on the first two films in the insidious franchise helped to crystalize my thoughts on the third installment, and I’m sorry to report that I’m not a fan. In this chapter Wan is out as the direct and Whannell is in as both the writer and director (and reprises his role as Specs). This is his directorial debut, so I’ll be gentle here… though, to be fair, I don’t think the directing was the issue… I think it was the writing, and since he wrote the first two movies in the series, I really can’t explain the dip in the quality… other that perhaps every bit of originality had already been wrung out of the concept. Once again, Whannell attempts to weave this chapter into the first two. He accomplishes this by making this installment a prequel (with all of the predictable prequel tropes (we find out where the name “The Further” came from, the origins of the two “ghostbusters” from the first two films, etc.). The prequel idea works in this case since it allows him to bring back a certain character in a more substantial role. However, his attempt to make all three intertwined really just succeeded in mudding the water. Things that seemed completely clear after watching the first two films are now just confusing, contradictory, and nonsensical. Also, this movie had jump-scare after jump-scare and very few (if any) genuine scares. In the end, Whannell’s contribution to horror movie genre is that these jump-scares come from a new direction… from above! In addition, there are certain logic holes that take viewers out of the film (look at the text-exchange between the lead character and the boy who lives next door). Finally, unlike the first two films, the characters in this one have no agency… they simply rely on other characters to help them… without doing much of anything to fight for themselves. That being said, the movie isn’t completely without merit. By having the lead character confined to her bed for most of the film it ups the feeling of vulnerability with leads to fear (though, mostly just fear for her). In the end, if you enjoyed the first two chapters of the franchise this one’s probably worth checking out when it’s free to stream… there are enough winks and nods to the first two to keep you somewhat entertained.
Also, apparently it’s still always the creepy closest at the foot of the bed…