Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sceptical Inquirer


Directed by James Wan

The movie begins with some promise: stills of a domestic interior creep by and you’re at once impressed by the tastefulness of the decor, and underneath these Good Housekeeping images the Bernard Herrmann-ish score slashes through all this tasteful banality and counterpoints them with a bit of malice. Score and image are at first opposed, but they slowly begin to entangle each other, and gradually the images get agitated and gather a bit of malice themselves, apparitions begin to appear in front of the couch and behind the windows. Now sound and image are of the same amplitude, and they combine to spew the word INSIDIOUS onto the screen like unwanted barf, and the image of it swallows up the breadth of your vision, the sound of it shrieks at you like a banshee, and then it all drops off into silence and darkness, but the stink of it still lingers. As far as opening gambits go, the movie goes all in from the start, but experience tells you that these opening credits are just bluffing.
            After such agitation, Insidious settles down far too easily after the opening credits. The plot is familiar to anybody who has seen any of the Amityville or Poltergeist movies, so one shouldn’t feel too bad about spoiling it. A family moves into a new home and strange things begin to happen. A boy falls from a ladder and goes into a coma. Medical doctors are unable to rouse the boy from his coma and so the family takes him home. More strange things happen. The family moves into another home. Still more strange things happen. Desperate, the family consults a trio of paranormal experts. The leader of these experts, a reasonable middle-aged woman, then divulges the entirety of plot: It isn’t the houses that are possessed, but the comatose little boy. And he’s not in a coma or really possessed, really he’s an astral traveller/projectionist: his soul is capable of travelling outside of his physical body. Trouble is his soul has travelled to a realm that Rand McNally doesn’t make a map for, a forbidden realm full of sidetracked phantoms called The Further. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the various phantoms are jostling to possess the boy’s earthly body (the phantoms just really want to live again you see).
            And it’s a good thing this medium shows up to explain the plot too, because up until her appearance the movie has no way of resolving the problem it has created for itself, so as far as mediums or phantoms go she’s more of a deus ex machina. Medical science is unable to help the boy, so the only alternative is a medium capable of resolving things. But her coup de grâce is the revelation that the hapless father of this family is also an astral projectionist, and in order to rescue his son he too must also travel too far this side of paradise.
            Insidious, being a horror film, of course has every right to call upon a quack to resolve its issues, but there is something quite insidious about the way the movie resolves itself. The set piece of Insidious is a séance in which the medium tries to guide the boy back into the realm of reality. It is quite a tense and terse sequence; it happens through a spate of screeches and flash bangs, and in the darkness visions of the uncanny splash onscreen, and this dark song and dance beats you about your eyes and ears and all of sudden all sensation bursts. One thinks this ruse would impress Houdini or Hitchcock it happens so convincingly. But before this séance starts we are convinced not to believe it. The medium puts on a gas mask anchored to a what’s what of doohickies and bleeping things, her assistants are presented as buffoonish hucksters, and so you are more than prepared for these junior ghostbusters to be exposed as frauds. The movie convinces you it’s about to debunk itself, but in order to abide by horror conventions and the framework of its own questionable logic, it goes all in again. These people aren’t frauds, the séance turns out to be real, and the movie tells you The Further really exists and tries to sell you on more silliness, and then you realize you’re not a world weary moviegoer but an easy mark, and the entire movie is just a confidence game and you’ve been fleeced 14 dollars by the movie’s producers.           
            The father strays into The Further, an unimaginative place where empty space is low budget black and footsteps shiver and everything is just a simulation of things that appeared before, except it has no sun and it has ghosts that don’t do a lot except pose. The Further is such a bland realm that you wonder why anybody would want to astral travel around in there, so it’s no surprise that all the ghosts are scoping for a vessel back into the world of the living.
            The movie ends with a twist that is as commonplace as The Further. Let’s just say that one of the astral travellers picks up a hitchhiking murderer.
            In The Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan wrote a true thing about The X-Files: that for its pretense about science and investigation, it never debunked a damned thing, all it did was increase our belief in spooks and conspiracies. Hollywood, for all its claims of liberalism and being bright in the dark, is a place just as demon haunted as any state drenched in red. Mixing red and blue just makes dark. And so they all go, all into the dark.
            Before Insidious started a trailer played for a movie called Apollo 18. It is about some sort of bogeyman or gremlin that terrorizes astronauts on the Moon. The tag line is something like: Find Out Why We Never Went Back! And so again science and reason are trumped by some shadowy manifestation of evil and ignorance, and you wonder when Hollywood will stop projecting their fears into the darkness of the Moon or in the darkness of the cinema. You can keep people in the dark with fear and religion. You can also keep them in the dark with sorcery and movie magic.