Lita On Film

Posts Tagged ‘Insidious’

They don’t make ’em like they used to: The decline of the haunted house movie

In Film Reviews on September 28, 2012 at 9:35 pm

The new Jennifer Lawrence vehicle HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET is just what you’re hoping it’s not: a bad amalgamation of all the slasher movie cliches that can be crammed into an hour and a half. Plucky heroine who nonetheless can’t save herself when it counts? Check. Creepy shut-in next door with a basement full of secrets? Check. Intimations of something nasty/potentially supernatural running around the forest? Check. Bad acting, worse writing, and unforgivable plot holes? Check, check, check. Even Lawrence, with her respectable acting chops (see WINTER’S BONE), can’t save this trashy, disappointing flick. However, rather than spend any more time bemoaning the state of current big-budget horror I am devoting this column instead to an examination of the place of the house in modern horror film, in the hopes that a look back will inspire at least a modicum of hope in you, dear readers, for the future.

Let’s begin with PSYCHO (1960). As critics from the popular (see David Thomson’s “The Moment of Psycho”, 2009) to the academic (see Slavoj Zizek’s “Looking Awry”, 1992) have long pointed out, Norman Bates’s family home plays a key role in the film, almost functioning as a character in its own right. (I always find the scene in which Lila (Vera Miles) explores Mother’s bedroom, with its many mirrors and creepy tchotchkes, to be one of the scariest in the whole film.) The place of the basement in PSYCHO has achieved nothing less than legendary status and led Zizek, in THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO CINEMA (2006) to construct an entire theory of the house as being divided into Norman’s id (basement) ego (ground floor) and superego (second floor), with the relevant parts of the story thus occurring in the appropriate parts of the house. It’s no accident that detective Arbogast is murdered at the top of the stairs, as he’s about to break into Norman’s superego zone. (The superego strives for perfection, according to Freud, and for Norman would be the place where the discrepancies in his split personality—and anyone finding out about them—would be the least tolerable.)

PSYCHO may have been the film that really cemented the house itself as a fixture in the horror film, but another film from the same year, Michael Powell’s PEEPING TOM, did just as good a job of making home sweet home into the ultimate horror show. The protagonist’s profession as a photographer gives him the perfect cover for getting close to women who catch his fancy, and also allows him to construct a darkroom in his apartment where he menaces his girlfriend and his landlady, her mother. These scenes are nothing less than spectacular, both for their perfectly choreographed use of light and shadow and for their sudden cuts to the living room just outside which, jarringly, appears welcoming at at least somewhat normal. Like the cavern in the basement of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, PEEPING TOM’s darkroom is a cabinet of horrors nestled skin-crawlingly close to the seat of domesticity.

Isn’t this really what’s frightening about haunted house movies—the collision of something foreign and threatening within a space that’s supposed to be completely knowable and safe? I think so. This foreign, threatening force can take many different forms, however, from an intruder lurking out of sight (WHEN A STRANGER CALLS [1979], BLACK CHRISTMAS [1974]) to an invading supernatural force (POLTERGEIST [1982], A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET [1985]) to the idea of the house itself being alive, possessed, and malevolent (THE AMITYVILLE HORROR [1979], THE SHINING [1980]). Sadly, with so many role models to choose from, HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET settles on precisely none of them. While it gestures towards the unseen-intruder trope several times, nothing ever comes of it, and though there is a secret room in a basement, it proves not too difficult to escape from.

Though its most obvious progenitors are the slasher films of the early to mid-80s, HOUSE doesn’t even have a fully-formed commentary on gender dynamics to offer, something that can often be found in the best films of this period. (Those who haven’t seen the original BLACK CHRISTMAS should do so straightaway; its politics are so far ahead of their time you’ll be checking the box to make sure you’re not mistaken.) The slasher cycle gave rise to what theorist Carol Clover (“Men, Women, and Chain Saws”, 1993) termed the “Final Girl,” a female character who isn’t sexualized as much as her compatriots and—partly because of this—manages to outwit the aggressor and kill him in the end. Though this is the general arc that Lawrence’s character follows in HOUSE, the story is so tired and the characters and dialogue so cliched that her eventual triumph and escape are not only not a surprise, but downright disappointing in their simplicity and predictability.

While there have been a few haunted house movies in the past few years that approached the greatness of some of the classics I’ve already mentioned—THE ORPHANAGE [2007] and INSIDIOUS [2010] spring to mind—the subgenre as a whole has been woefully anemic. Unfortunately, even with a compelling lead actress, HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET does absolutely nothing to reverse this trend. Here’s hoping that Lawrence gives horror another try in a better film sometime soon.

© Lita Robinson 2012

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Trivial Top Ten

In Film News, Film Reviews, Netflix Recommendations on December 27, 2011 at 12:05 am

As the year draws to a close, I feel the annual urge to post my own Trivial Top Ten–a list not exhaustive by any means, but more a private crib sheet of my personal favorites from the past 12 months.

My perpetual caveat: there are SO MANY films I haven’t yet seen, many of which would probably end up on a more professional, exhaustive list, so don’t hold that against me.  These are just the ten films I enjoyed the most/found the most interesting over the past year.  Notes as to how you can see each of them are included, as are links to my own reviews of each title, as applicable.  Enjoy!  🙂

  1. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE – Read my review here!  See the official site for screening locations.
  2. WEEKEND – Read my review here!  Now available on NETFLIX streaming!
  3. SHE MONKEYS – Read my review here!  See the official site here…so far, no distribution in the USA, but keep your fingers crossed.  Whet your appetite with the trailer (here)!
  4. SHAME – Read my review here!  Visit the official site here to find where it’s playing near you!  Beware, its NC-17 rating has made it difficult to find outside of major cities and art houses.  You may have to make a pilgrimage for this one, but it’s worth it, I promise.
  5. INSIDIOUS – Read my review here!  Ok, I know it technically came out last year, but it made such an impression on me–and I was so late in finally seeing it–that I felt it was worth adding to this list.  Plus, genuinely good horror films are so few and far between these days that one practically has to reach back a year or two to be able to recommend anything good.  Available on NETFLIX streaming!
  6. LAST NIGHT – Another Tribeca premiere that still made it to this list about 9 months later.  A truly excellent romantic drama starring Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington as a couple who married too young and are struggling with the consequences.  Great acting, tight direction and a fast pace keep the tension crackling in this sexy ensemble drama.  Available on NETFLIX streaming!
  7. DRIVE – Ok, I got to this one late as well, but it was so worth it.  Check out Kevin Bowen’s review over on Screen Comment for a full rundown, and the official site for screening locations near you.
  8. BUCK – Read my review here!  Now available on NETFLIX streaming!
  9. ANGELS CREST – Read my review here!  See the official site for release dates and screening venues.
  10. TROLLHUNTER – Read my review here!  Now available on NETFLIX streaming!

What were your favorite (or least favorite) films of 2011?  What were some that should have been on my list?  Let me know!

Halloween recommendation: “Insidious”

In Film Reviews, Netflix Recommendations on October 30, 2011 at 11:06 pm

Horror fans rejoice: finally, a film about possession that will leave you with more than just abject disappointment.

James Wan, instigator of the infamous “Saw” series, sets his sights a little higher in “Insidious,” a film which very consciously harkens back to some of the great horror tropes of the 1970s and 80s: demonic children, haunted houses, and intimations of the Beyond (in this film it’s called “the Further”). Part “Poltergeist” and part “Exorcist,” what sets “Insidious” apart from not only the recent spate of vapid possession flicks (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “The Last Exorcism,” “The Rite”) but from horror film tradition at large is its concentration on a male child as the victim of possession, and a father as the agent of his salvation.

The film opens on Renai (Rose Byrne), an aspiring musician and young mother of three settling into a new house in a tony suburb. Her husband Josh (Patrick Wilson) is a schoolteacher, and they lead a hectic but happy family life—though not for long, of course. Soon Renai is plagued by mysterious voices during her long days home alone with the baby, and objects start to fall off shelves of their own accord. Then, after a tumble off a ladder in the shadowy attic, Renai and Josh’s oldest son, Dalton, fails to wake up the next morning. He has fallen into a strange, undiagnosable coma.

As the couple searches for answers Renai’s encounters become more and more terrifying, until she finally convinces Josh that they have to leave the house. But unlike “The Amityville Horror” or “Poltergeist,” the problem in “Insidious” isn’t in the house, but in the child. Having exhausted medicine and religion as possible solutions, Renai turns to (you guessed it) an old woman who acts as a medium between this world and the next—I mean, the Further. Josh turns out to be the only one who can save his son, who has wandered into some sort of existential Purgatory and is being pursued by evil spirits. The ending is too entertaining to spoil, but suffice it to say that things are left tantalizingly unresolved.

Wan’s touch is deft, neither abrupt nor predictable; he incorporates the inherent campiness of the genre seamlessly into this effectively spooky film, knowing just when to ramp up and when to relieve tension. Byrne and Wilson are believable in their roles (though Byrne looks far too well-kempt for a mother of three) and Lin Shaye, as the medium, and Barbara Hershey as Josh’s mother bring a seriousness to their roles that keeps the narrative from tipping into the absurd.

For someone who dreamed up the torture-porn orgy that the “Saw” franchise has become, Wan’s visual effects in this film are surprisingly innovative, even restrained at times. At one point, autonomous flashbulbs signal the presence of unseen malevolent spirits, recalling the barrels that indicated the approaching shark in “Jaws.” The evil spirits themselves are, as usual, less scary when we finally see them than when they remain an intimation hovering just out of frame, but they’re perfectly serviceable. It’s a credit to Wan that the appearances of the ghouls themselves don’t make or break the rest of the film.

Recalling “The Shining,” “Insidious” also relies heavily on its soundscape to create an atmosphere of menace, something that Joseph Bishara’s score accomplishes with aplomb. His heavy use of strings recalls not just Kubrick’s favored composers (Georgi Ligeti above all) but even Bernard Hermann. It’s impossible not to think of “Psycho” when those violins are being sawed at.

Overall, Wan is to be commended for his effort to update the haunted house genre and for stepping outside the glut of degradation films (some admittedly of his own making) that enjoy inexplicable popularity these days. Far from feeling dated or overly nostalgic, “Insidious” is pleasantly reminiscent of many of the best horror films of the past 40 years, but remains firmly anchored in the 21st century. It’s a welcome addition to the canon and, hopefully, the first in a long line of non-“Saw” films for Wan and company.

 

“Insidious” is available on DVD from Netflix.