Archive for September 27th, 2011

A Writer Reviews: Insidious

I don’t typically go in for the haunted house possession movies, just not really my thing.  But this weekend I ended up watching Insidious as part of an I-pick, she-picks double feature with my wife.  (My pick: The Illusionist, the animated one not the Edward Norton one, brilliant but depressing.)

Through the first act of the movie I actually quite liked it.  Mostly because it obeyed one of my big musts for a horror movie: it trusted itself to be scary.  It didn’t resort to the cheep scares, the visceral equivalent of fart jokes in a comedy, but kept things going mostly through tone and dread, which is where horror actually lives.  Yes, it’s my old go to distinction between scares and horror that I know I’ve touched on before.

But in its strength early on also lies its weakness as the story progresses.  And it’s something that writers need to be aware of in all their works, but especially in works of horror: tone.  Horror is one of only two genres (the other being comedy) that I would probably define by its tone rather than its content.  It’s also why those two genres tend to cross all other genres, and even each other at times.  It’s how Alien can be a horror movie set on a space ship, or Galaxy Quest can be a comedy set on a space ship.  The space ships make the movies science fiction because of content, but the chosen tone makes them horror or comedy.

It’s also worth bringing up my other big horror cliche, that it and comedy are really two sides of the same coin.  Both are about crossing lines, it’s just a question of which lines are crossed.  Gene Weingarten has a fantastic theory that humor is the natural human defense mechanism against the existential terror of the world around us.  Babies laughing during a game of peak-a-boo are laughing in relief after the horror of watching their parent disappear right in front of them.  It’s a terror-then-release thing, and one of the reasons that humans seek out frightening experiences for the rushes of first the fear and then the release.

Getting back to Insidious, tone awareness ends up being the problem with the movie.

Dark comedy is fantastic, and there is plenty of room for the humorous within a horror story.  But that needs to be set in the tone early on, and not be something that emerges as the movie continues.  If lighter tone doesn’t show up until Act Two of a story, it’s not dark comedy, it’s a failure of tone.  And that happened in Insidious when the two spirit detectives showed up and started using a View Master to track down spirits hiding in the house.  It was a moment that took both my wife and I out of the flow of the movie and start asking just what the intended tone was.  When eventually the main spirit guide shows up, she puts on a gas mask that, while used to very creepy effect in Doctor Who, just didn’t work in the movie.

The tone problem continued into the real dramatic high of the movie, when the father astral projects into the spirit realm and encounters all the evil souls looking for an empty body to possess.  Perhaps one of the problems is that concept works better on paper than it does on film, because unfortunately for each spirit that was introduced there was something unquestionably silly about them.  The murderess who looked like a 50s mannequin.  The demon with translucent skin just a little too eager to lick peoples’ faces.  The big bad demon of the whole thing, the flame-faced demon who just had greasepaint on his face rather than, as I expected, something more akin to Nicolas Cage in Ghost Rider.  The old lady that looked like an 18-year old in a Halloween old lady costume.  These probably weren’t entirely in the script, they were in the art department, the make-up, the directing, but they were real issues with the tone.  And it’s why I wonder if the story would translate better on paper, as there’s little chance that a reader who comes across a phrase like “the demon’s face was a veil of fire” would imagine a creature like a poorly made-up clown or Darth Maul wannabe.

For the movie it made for a disappointing last 50 minutes after a strong opening 30.  For a writer looking for a lesson, it’s this: beware of your tone in horror.  If you want campy, do campy, but do it from the beginning.  Don’t let it show up too late in the story, or else you’ve set the table for readers just to pull out the tablecloth from under them.

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