Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Movie Review: Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) & 3 (2015)



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When Saw first came out to phenomenal box office returns, people soon became familiar with director James Wan’s supposed ‘torture porn’ style. After taking a producing role for the rest of the series, and his subsequent releases Dead Silence and Death Sentence barely received any critical attention (let alone positive attention), it seemed like he was going to stuck with that label for the rest of his professional career, if it would even survive beyond all that. Then came Insidious in 2009, and audiences took note. Rather than the industrial grime and twisted morals that have been attached to him thanks to the original Saw, Insidious blasted its way into cinemas and showed off Wan’s true style: Old-school horror thrills reminiscent of the haunted house flicks of the 70’s and 80’s. After that film set a far better preconception for the man, he would go on to even greater success with The Conjuring and even show his proficiency in genres outside of horror. However, same year that Conjuring was released, he went back to that staple that gave him the credit he desperately deserved… and critics weren’t all that into it. Time to dive in and see if it really deserves the flack it got. This is Insidious: Chapter 2.

The plot: Shortly after the events of the first film, Josh (Patrick Wilson) has been possessed by a spirit from The Further. As his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) and sons Dalton (Ty Simpkins) and Foster (Andrew Astor) notice that he has been acting strangely since their encounter with the Red-Faced Demon, his mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) calls in Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) to help her get to the bottom of what is still haunting their family.

Patrick Wilson is still a great actor and, thankfully, the character he’s playing this time kind of is as well. Not only does he get to slip into his old shoes as Josh, he gets to have some fun as Parker Crane, making for some nice Dolarhyde-lite thrills. Lin Shaye was extremely distracting in the opening scene, where her voice was very jarringly dubbed over Lindsay Seim playing a younger version of her character, but her cheery attitude is still welcomed. Whannell and Sampson are still great as the comic relief, even making for a legitimately touching moment when they discuss how Elise’s death affected them, considering their line of work.

Despite its seriously goofy moments, particularly the climactic encounter with the Red-Faced Demon, it still did wonders at producing scares through more classical means. Now, James Wan’s old-school sensibilities when it comes to horror only fully bloomed in The Conjuring, which came out shortly before this film did; the original Insidious showed a good progression towards that, but still a little frayed around the edges. This is a sequel that producer Jason Blum (yes, it’s another one of his productions) and it shows, especially with how the camera and editing have shifted between films. For some reason, they decided to go into found footage-style cinematography, primarily in a scene where Specs and Tucker are investigating Parker’s old house with their camcorders. Now, while that scene in it of itself felt unnecessary, the found footage mechanics snuck into the editing as well. In a lot of the Paranormal Activity films, especially the earlier ones, the editing would look a bit jumpy like moments of dead air were just cut right out of it. We have the same effect here, except not during the scene with POV camera footage. As a result, we have a film that feels like it wants to be found footage but isn’t.

Then again, this being shot in exactly the same way as the original is kind of excusable. After all, this film takes a different direction in comparison. Instead of focusing so much on the atmosphere and being playing like a tribute to the traditional haunted house flicks, this is more like a supernatural possession thriller that pays tribute to a different kind of horror film. Namely, Josh/Parker’s motivation feels like elements of Red Dragon got poured into the script, crossed with The Cell given how he is taken down in the end. I like Whannell’s talents when it comes to carrying narrative through a film series, and admittedly this film does a decent job as a follow-up to the original in terms of plot. However, that affinity isn’t enough to excuse how this film feels like Wan’s influences are being pushed even closer to the surface than previously. Then the film gets to Parker’s mother, and suddenly it becomes a cross between Sleepaway Camp and Mommie Dearest. Unless you are a literal miracle worker, that combination is always going to look silly. Really, the only consistent element that has survived from the first film is the soundtrack… and given how that includes the histrionic string section, which still made me laugh right at the title sequence, that’s probably the last thing I was anxious to see return for this movie.

All in all, it’s a good follow-up to the original, but not that great a horror film on its own; it left me at a similar point that The Marked Ones did last year. The characters are still engaging, the story feels like a good way to continue from the previous installment and there are some decent moments of suspense, but ultimately it feels like it has strayed way too far from what made the first film good in the first place. Now, we have unnecessary found footage elements and performances and plot developments that clash heavily with the atmospheric tone the film is still trying to set. It’s better than Upstream Color, as the plot here isn’t nearly as irritatingly obtuse. However, since this ultimately fell short as a horror film, it also falls short of Jack Reacher, which succeeded in its primary genre.

 
Flash-forward another two years: James Wan is becoming a force to reckoned with in Hollywood thanks to Fast & Furious 7 and writer Leigh Whannell is gaining some speed on his own thanks to his work on Cooties and The Mule. A new installment of the Insidious series is in the works with Whannell set to return as writer and in his supporting role. However, he is now also going to be directing, with this being his debut. With several returning faces from previous installments, and new cinematographer (Brian Pearson) and editor (Timothy Alverson) being brought on board, Whannell might just have the tools he needs to pull this off. Given how the last cinematographer would go on to try and demolish the Conjuring legacy with Annabelle, replacing him means that we're already off to a good start Only one way to find out. This is Insidious: Chapter 3.

The plot: Set a few years prior to the events of the first film, Quinn (Stefanie Scott) is a budding actress with hopes of attending a drama school in New York. However, after being hit by a car and getting both her legs broken, she is restricted to her bed and wheelchair until she heals. Unfortunately, she has started noticing creepy disturbances happening in her apartment block with her father Sean (Dermot Mulroney). Wanting to reach out, thinking that it’s her deceased mother trying to make contact, she enlists the help of psychic Elise (Lin Shaye) to help shed some light on what is going on around Quinn.

Easily the biggest thing that has held this series back is how inordinately screwy some of the more supposed-to-be tense moments could get. Whether it’s the garish New Nightmare-esque stylings of the Red-Faced Demon to the laughter-inducing melodrama courtesy of Parker’s mother, the last two films have always had something holding them back from being as good as they could be. This time, aside from the ending and Tucker’s interesting choice of haircut, this is easily the most straight-faced of all the films so far. We get a few jump scares here, because even the best of them can’t avoid them at this point, but when they do happen, they feel deserved more times than not. The rest of the time, rather than letting the music dictate the scares, it will put all of its focus on the atmosphere and the sheer fact of the situation sink in. The premise itself is easily the most nerve-racking we’ve seen in the series so far: A girl is being haunted by a presence, but she is physically helpless to stand against it. That idea alone gives this film an edge and, thankfully, the production doesn’t betray it at any point. The oily black footprints The Man Who Can’t Breathe leaves in his wake, his mannerisms as described from when he was alive, how we see him interacting with Quinn at times during the film; it all gives a very eerie vibe to the majority.

When it isn’t aiming at sheer chills, Whannell is also rather adept at delivering pathos as well. This is largely due to how amazing Lin Shaye is in this film: She’s emotional, strong, cheerful and even kind of badass at times, creating a performance that fits in nicely with what has already been established in prior installments, as well as using adding to the overall story in a way that feels like it was planned this way from day one. The rest of the cast also do amazingly well in their roles: Stefanie Scott nails down the powerless dread of her character; Mulroney is a bit of a dick early on, but he is still good at portraying the need to keep his family running smoothly after the passing of their mother; and Michael Reid MacKay is very creepy as The Man Who Can’t Breathe. Honestly, the only weak points in the cast come from Whannell and Sampson. Maybe it’s because this is an earlier point in their respective arcs, before their work with Elise made them give more dedication to their work, but even their status as the comic relief doesn’t fit this film all that well either. It could just be a reaction to how this film feels a lot more focused than the last two, and their goofiness feels out-of-place as a result. All the same, even if they feel off, they are still good performances in their own right.

All in all, while this isn’t quite as chilling as the original, it is also the most consistent of the series so far. Thanks to the excellent acting, particularly from Lin Shaye, the approach to the haunted house set-up this time around and the execution of both the scares and the more emotional moments, I’d easily call this the best Insidious film yet. This is a remarkable effort from Leigh Whannell, and I can only hope that he doesn’t give up the director’s chair just yet; given the current horror landscape, we could use more films like this. It’s better than Sleeping With Other People, as the intent of this film is focused and it more than delivers on it. However, despite how much better this film does in terms of not sabotaging its own good points, the writing in While We’re Young gives a slight edge in comparison.

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