David has spent some time on the subject of terroir. I initially took that to be a typo but it turned out it was just French. Terroir can apply to anything, and seems to describe a specific combination of factors that grounds something — wine, comics, film — to the place in which it was made. A movie shot in Italy will feel different than one shot in Russia. Location shoots give an element of verisimilitude, perhaps at the expense of grandeur. Part of what made Centurion work was the sense that these actors really were suffering in the highlands of Scotland. Part of what made the Star Wars prequels fail was the green screen utterly divorcing performances from the film’s reality. Movies are finished at least twice, once when the final cut is released, and once in the head of the individual audience member. It’s this second one that gives us another way to apply terroir to the experience of film. Some asshole popping gum behind you, or a couple dipshit kids texting can ruin a perfectly good movie. And a good experience can put you in the right frame of mind to make a new favorite.
Mrs. Supermarket was out of town, visiting her sister. I decided to spend this time like any husband suddenly freed from the shackles of matrimony: I spent the weekend playing Bioshock 2 and going to the movies. I plopped myself down at the local Arclight for a 9:30 showing of Insidious. For those people living in the savage hinterlands outside Los Angeles and don’t know what it’s like to see a movie in a real theater, the Arclight is basically the closest you will ever get to watching a first run film in your living room. If your living room had state of the art sound and a television the size of Godzilla’s prostate.
There’s something about seeing a horror movie alone. There’s no one to cling to, or in the case of a man, pretend you don’t need while you secretly cuddle up, hoping she’ll deign to protect you with her Slavic witchcraft. You’re forced to internalize the film, and later, there’s no one with whom to share the most frightening part and chase away the lingering fear. In retrospect, it was silly of me to see a haunted house movie alone. Along with aliens, ghosts are classic movie monsters that seem like they could be real. Not that any rational person will proudly crow about a belief in the restless dead, but in a dark, drafty house, the silly chimp part of the brain starts whispering about the ancient Indian burial ground probably directly underfoot. Suddenly normal things like wind, bad wiring, and nightmares become the fault of some pissed off dead guy.
Even someone like me. No matter how much I want to, I don’t believe in ghosts. But after watching Insidious, I did. If only until Mrs. Supermarket got home. Any good haunted house movie will do this to me. Insidious is a self-conscious entrant into the genre, one at once aware of and grateful for its pedigree. It hits similar beats as the classics from the ‘80s: beautiful nuclear family moves into a new house, weird shit happens, and a team of experts successfully combines spirituality and technology to drive the ghosts away. The paranormal investigators bear more than a superficial resemblance to the team in Poltergeist and Barbara Hershey provides a tangible connection to 1982‘s underrated The Entity. It also takes pains to avoid the standard pitfalls that were fodder for Eddie Murphy back when he was funny: soon after the disturbances start, the family moves.
Not that this helps, since as the helpful medium (played by Lin Shaye, best known for her appearances in Farrelly Brothers films) explains that the house isn’t what’s haunted: it’s one of the couple’s sons. The boy, an experienced astral projector, has become separated from his soul, and while he lies in a coma, ghosts gather around him for the ultimate prize of possessing his body. The entity closest to the possession isn’t a ghost at all, but a demon. There’s a horror movie I dimly remember seeing as a kid in which a house was haunted by several ghosts, a poltergeist, and a demon. It both traumatized and prepared me to accept this dynamic. I really wish I could find this movie, although I strongly suspect it’s nowhere near as scary as I remember.
This is as good a time as any to mention this film comes from James Wan and Leigh Whannell, a.k.a. the Saw guys. While I am a Saw apologist (I love anything that can be accurately described as Se7en meets Jackass), Insidious seems designed with Saw haters in mind. There is no gore. None. The scares come from shocks, eerie imagery, and sometimes something as simple as the creepiest fucking song ever recorded. The color palette is washed out, becoming nearly monochromatic during the climax of the film. The music is all Hitchcockian stings, the title card a throwback to early Universal horror. Insidious is a clear attempt to make a classic horror film for a modern audience.
It succeeds, mostly. The one aspect of the film that still doesn’t quite work is the odd structure. The protagonist in the early going is young wife and mother Renai (played by Captain Supermarket favorite Rose Byrne). She experiences most of the manifestations, she deals with absent father Josh (Patrick Wilson), and she calls in the experts. Toward the end, Josh becomes the hero. Though the lack of a traditional narrative gives the film an exhilarating air, it costs it some dramatic heft.
The better haunted house movies unfold against an almost generic background. The horror stems from the subconscious affirmation that could be our house, so no matter how large and creepy it gets, it can’t pass beyond the realm of plausibility. As long as you ignore the idea these people can afford not one but two amazing houses on a teacher’s salary and nothing else (the biggest logic gap in a film that features a hipster demon), the arena for the hauntings is distressingly familiar.
Insidious will always hold a special place in my heart because I saw it under some of the best possible circumstances. Still, it has held up under repeated viewings at home. Because of the classic feel, it’s a film time will be kind to, and proof Wan and Whannell are more than one trick ponies as well as a new appreciation for “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”