Sunday, October 6, 2013

Monster Serial: INSIDIOUS, 2010

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


Last night, as I re-watched and was reliably scared stiff by INSIDIOUS, I was pleased by the father’s ability to skip like a stone across the water of Horror Movie Bad Decisions.  First, he demands they stay in what seems to be a haunted house.  Then, when things get one step too weird, he sensibly moves to the safest, blandest suburban house he can find.  Later, when he comes home to find various (and seeming) crackpots like priests and psychics, he sensibly orders them out… until he gets past his own ego and invites them to return to clean up the mess.

This is in response to PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (as well as a host of other horror films), where the villain is really male braggadocio more than the demon.  It’s Micah insisting they lay traps, stay in the house, keep filming, and doing everything he can to piss off his wife and exacerbate the demon’s fury. 
(Message: guys, don’t tick off women; it usually results in something far worse than you can imagine.  And no, you can’t fix it.  Just listen to them.)

I like both films a lot, but INSIDIOUS really allows its protagonists to be smart.  Are they geniuses?  No.  But they do the best they can with very limited information in a context that’s scary for reasons I’ll describe in a mo’.)  I contend that no truly scary film stars dimwitted characters.  The moment an audience member seriously questions a protagonist’s decisions or sees something that he should see, too, but doesn’t, the film has dropped down many rungs.  Instead of operating psychologically, it has to resort to fire-bombing audiences with cheep “boo” moments. 

You need smart characters in horror films because of the origin of horror.  Lemme break this down:

1.  Humans survive via pattern recognition.
2.  Pattern recognition is based on applied, predictive knowledge.
3.  Take away knowledge, and you take away the ability to predict.
4.  Thus, you take away the meaning of patterns.
5.  Without patterns, you have the ultimate danger to survival at a primal level.
6.  Terror ensues.

My favorite examples are THE EXORCIST and JAWS.  Who are the heroes?  Smartest guys in the room, suddenly way out of their league.  And if people who know more than I do or you do are way out of their league, who’s safe?  Exactly. 

Not only are the heroes of INSIDIOUS (eventually) smart, and not only do they recruit people who are much smarter, they are still overcome by the unknown.  What, exactly, is going on in the movie?  Beats me.  I understand some of it, but not all of it… and I want to keep it that way.  Once I know who Gozer and Zuul are, and once I know that all I need do is cross the streams, the movie’s over.  Ghosts are scary because of their sudden and inexplicable behavior.  The violent banging on the door, apropos of nothing.  That appearance in broad daylight which is only seen for an instant.  The faint voice on the baby monitor that is heard only once. 

How do you deal with that?  How do you even begin to guess how?
INSIDIOUS plays and sustains that note with an elegance that begins startlingly and increases to an hypnotic cacophony at a very deliberate pace.  The film even teases audiences with the notion of experts.  They enter using ridiculous looking, homemade tools. (And all great horror warps the mundane into the malevolent.)  But soon those tools reveal genuinely frightening images or become one.  My favorite is the wacky gas mask that the psychic has to don when she communes with the spirits.  It looks hilarious until the blocking and filmmaking finesse warp it into a frightening, bug-eyed face-trap under which godknowswhat contortions are happening or if she will become an anonymous and expressionless monster.

The plot really has too many things to spoil.  It starts out as a haunted house movie and isn’t.  It’s POLTERGEIST that takes some very odd turns.  We’ve seen them all before, but not like this.  Special kudos to SAW director James Wan and his wise casting of Lyn Shaye, a quirkily lovely and charismatic pixie of an actress who specializes in playing grotesque characters in Farrelly Brothers movies, but has so much more potential.  Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne and Ty Simpkins (as a kid who won’t annoy you) round out the family, with Barbara Hershey returning to the horror genre as a Weird Grandmother.  The comic relief is provided by the parapsychologist’s assistants, Tucker and Specs (that latter of whom, played by Leigh Whannell, also wrote the film).  Lovable fanboys, they perfectly modulate their odd couple shtick and provide an audience surrogate of irony and common sense just when the tension needs it… or needs heightening.

Another in the line of great PG-13 horror films, INSIDIOUS uses its rating’s limitations to work psychologically, rather than viscerally, and the result is one of the scariest films I’ve seen in years.
And the bad guy looks like Darth Maul and lives in a Meat Loaf video. 

PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.

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