A Very Scary Pairing

Insidious - 2010 and Insidious Chapter 2 - 2013
Directed by James Wan
Written by Leigh Whannell

The party starts here.

Ever since director James Wan shook up the horror genre with Saw in 2004, he's been the "It" director of horror films.  Rather than continuing to churn out Saw sequels, as he surely had an opportunity to do, he's brought even spookier tales to the screen in films like The Conjuring and Insidious 1 & 2.  It would not be unfair to call Wan this generation's John Carpenter.  His next film will be the seventh Fast & Furious, which seems like a good fit, given Wan's intense and unsubtle approach to direction.  While Wan never shies away from clubbing the viewer over the head with his story beats on film, it's his partnership with writer/actor Leigh Whannell (the guy who is not Cary Elwes in Saw) that truly stands out as an example of thoughtful and clever storycraft.

"You have something on your shoulder..."
Nowhere is that more evident than in Insidious and Insidious Chapter 2 -- the latter in particular.  I'm discussing them together because they are the rare case in horror movies where the sequel was clearly planned from the beginning rather than invented as a way to separate teens from more of their allowance.

Insidious is a modern take on the fairly rote themes of the possession story.  A family starts to experience an increasingly unnerving series of haunting events.  Mom picks up a creepy voice on the baby monitor.  Floor boards creak.  Locked doors are blown open.  Visions of the dead begin to creep in.  All that good stuff.

Wan takes a pretty heavy hand with the presentation of these things.  Many scares are telegraphed from miles away and the viewer can frequently point to the split second when a spook will suddenly appear.  It's hard to say whether we're simply so conditioned by movies that we respond so strongly to the rote pacing of a scare, or whether the alchemy of film has so refined the process of scaring us based on our natural tendencies.  I suspect it's a little of both.  The music, in particular, seems designed to not-just-suggest how we should be feeling, but to scream it in our faces like an archetypical drill sergeant.  "YOU are FEELing TENSION right now, you damned panty-waist!  That TENsion is BUILDing to a POINT.  Right NOOOW, I want you're skin to be CRAWLING, soldier, and what I want is LAW, DO YOU HEAR ME, maggot?  THAT was the moment of relief before (SKREE-SKREE-SKREE) a FRIGHT that will cause your BOWELS to release like MONteZUma's REvenge!  Now STRAIGHTEN UP, you wussy little pukes!"  It's... a bit much, at times.  And yet, it often works.  I genuinely had to question the wisdom of watching the sequel on quite so chilly a December evening.

"Dear God, no... not cosplayers!"
The series of scares builds up to an increasing threat toward the children of the family, until the older son falls into an unexplainable coma.  When all scientific approaches have been exhausted, his grandmother brings in a psychic/paranormal investigator.  She believes that the boy has been astrally projecting got lost in the limbo between the world of the living and the great beyond.  The greater threat is that his spiritually vacated body is to ghosts what a boarded up row house is to London squatters.  If he can't find his way back to his body soon, something else will.

As it turns out, the father encountered the same danger as a child and had his memories suppressed for his own safety.  Tapping into a talent for astral travel, he's able to cross over and seek out his son's wandering soul.  It's here that things cross the line from a build up of scares to openly explicit boogeyman territory.  The spirit world is all darkness and fog with moaning people in gray makeup.  It was just... too much ...in my opinion.  It was tense, but it wasn't scary anymore.

Insidious ends with a death and a mystery, which leads directly into Insidious Chapter 2.

"What was that?"
The sequel takes a much more fluid approach to time, opening with a flashback to the father's childhood and the events that would (literally) come back to haunt them all.  It then rejoins the story a few hours after the end of the first film.  The family has gone to stay with grandma in the father's childhood home while the police conduct their investigation into the death at their house.  It quickly becomes clear that the "insidious" spirits are not done with them yet, and the chilling process of building up fear begins again.  The filmmakers hit us pretty hard with their escalation of terror.  While things get worse at home, grandma is out with the paranormal investigators tracking down the origins of their ghosts, find that this rabbit hole leads directly into a Hell of human making.

We are returned to the land of darkness and fog, and while it's all still very sound-stagey, the established mythos makes it more effective the second time around.  We're not looking for naturalism anymore, but accepting it as a conceit of the series.  It takes on a number of twists of its own, now that we know what to expect from it.  It's still not as scary as the real world scares; the anticipated, the startling and the unknown, but it contains its own tension and drama.  This time, rather than wholly containing the climax within this world, there is paralleling tension and drama in the material world, creating a much more effective anxiety.

"Watch it with the spoilers!"

I'm of the opinion that it ends with something of a joke.  As the camera moves in on one character's face, it's like a game of chicken for well-trained horror fans.  We KNOW it can't end with a pure sigh of relief... or can it?  Wan & Whannell allow themselves to have it both ways, both wrapping up the story while still leaving room for the inevitable sequel rooted in the the first two.

It's really in the crafting of the narrative that they shine.  I've kind of made a point of both sides of Wan as a director.  He knows all the notes and hits them hard, but it's often too hard, with too much... flair.  Kind of like a female pop vocalist in the post-Whitney Houston era.  Ease up on the friggin' melisma, you know?

In the script, however, Whannell weaves together a variety of scares in a tightly-paced fashion, and story elements that actually add up, rather than merely existing to make the viewer jump.  It's in Chapter 2 that the cleverness is truly revealed, as mere haunts from the first movie turn into pivotal story beats in the second.  It's one thing to unspool a mystery, but it's even more thrilling when you discover that the mystery is bigger and more complex than you suspected.  Taken as a whole, I felt that Insidious 1 & 2 delivered both bigger and deeper than Saw.  Forget your M. Night Shyamalan (which you really should have done by now anyway); Leigh Whannell is your guy for twisty stories.  I really hope that he's able to break out on his own.  His narrative skill would be amazing in a TV series.

And now, just for shiggles; another Wan/Whannel afterlife joint... Doggie Heaven.

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