Directed by James Wan
I doubt that I’ll ever want to watch a movie on an iPhone. Doing so feels like a rejection of all the pleasures I associate with moviegoing: sitting in a darkened room among strangers, soaking in wall-sized images, escaping from my own experience into someone else’s. None of this can happen when the image has been shrunk to the size of your hand and the sound compressed to ringtone quality. In this context a movie becomes interchangeable with, if not subservient to, everyday distractions.
But regardless of how I feel, more and more people are consuming movies this way; you see them every day on the el. The diminution of sight and sound seems to be influencing a new generation of filmmakers, too: interviewed a few years ago in New City, local filmmaker Joe Swanberg said he composed his shots based on how they looked through the viewfinder of his DV camera. Perhaps we should take this phenomenon into account when considering new releases and their intended effect upon audiences. Take, for example, the horror movie Insidious, which opens nationwide this week. I found it worthless as a moviegoing experience, inept as storytelling and ugly to look at. But I’m willing to concede that it may play better on a phone.
Aesthetically, Insidious operates at the level of a decent high school video project. The story transpires mostly in uncomplicated close-ups and medium shots; nothing apart from the most basic visual information (faces, relevant props) registers in the frame or takes hold in your imagination. The sound design, so important to establishing tone in a horror movie, is even less inspired: every potentially scary moment is embellished with an over-amplified shock chord or sound effect that pounds the content into you like a blunt object.
Of course, technical sophistication isn’t the final arbiter of artistic merit; plenty of cheap, shoddy movies can be well worth seeing. Some thrive on odd performances or funky camera work; others are enlivened by enterprising filmmakers who know how to work the material to their advantage. In the 1940s, Poverty Row directors like Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour, Strange Illusion) and Joseph H. Lewis (Secrets of a Co-ed, So Dark the Night) created a weird, nightmarish intensity from minuscule budgets. In the 60s and 70s, regionally produced drive-in horror items like S.F. Brownrigg’s The Forgotten (aka Don’t Look in the Basement) and Frederick R. Friedel’s Lisa, Lisa (aka Axe) overcome their amateurishness through a surprising wealth of local color. The workaday spirit of these movies can be irresistible; watching them can be like enjoying a drink at your favorite dive bar.
Insidious is both costlier and blander than any of these examples, yet it fitfully evokes the pleasures of low-budget genre filmmaking, especially when it’s introducing its knowingly worn premise. As the film’s generically pleasant family moves into its suburban dream home, you can sense director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell (who collaborated on the first Saw movie) champing at the bit to reveal that the place is haunted. Once the scary stuff begins, though, the movie is pretty joyless, an endless series of spooky-looking people jumping out of nowhere and into the frame.
Just as the images are kept as simple and unadorned as possible, the moviemakers seem uninterested in fleshing out their story with personality, observation, or any kind of aesthetic innovation. Every character—from the dopey parents (Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne) to the big-eyed children (one of whom, predictably, becomes possessed by a ghoul) to the eccentric paranormal expert that agrees to help them out (Lin Shaye)—lacks definition, as if he were photocopied from other movies. Not until halfway through the movie does one learn what the father does to afford a two-story suburban home: apparently he’s a schoolteacher, but Wan and Whannel never divulge what grade he teaches or even whether he likes his job. One gets the impression that they never gave these things any thought.
When the filmmakers try to explain why the house is haunted, their backstory makes little sense, even inside the parameters of the movie’s own logic. Near the beginning, the eldest son is knocked unconscious and falls into a coma; the culprit is a phantom from the dream world he’s been visiting in his sleep, yet somehow his demons escape from his unconscious to haunt the family, following them when they try to take refuge at his grandmother’s house. The paranormal expert later explains that they can rid themselves of these ghouls only if someone is capable of following the boy into his dreams and rescuing his spirit. Lucky for them, the father has this ability; he just had the knowledge erased from his memory when he was a boy.
These discoveries don’t register as plot twists so much as ideas tossed in to keep the story moving. (My colleague Ignatiy Vishnevetsky recently challenged himself to catch up with all seven Saw movies in a week; he told me it was like watching Days of Our Lives for horror buffs, which seems an apt comparison here as well.) This approach to storytelling can be an asset in low-budget cinema, as evidenced by the non sequitur plots of Roger Corman or Russ Meyer. Some of their sensibility emerges in Insidious when the expert’s clownish assistants reveal that their “paranormal tools” are simply modified old toys. The sweet nostalgia of this reminded me of Michel Gondry’s comic fantasies (The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind), but unfortunately there are no other moments like that in the movie.
These aesthetic concerns might be less relevant if one were watching Insidious as an iPhone video. You could keep it on inside your jacket, glancing at the screen whenever a scary shot appeared. In that context the movie might benefit from the fact that it feels less like a movie than the idea of one. The minimal detail, if observed at stray moments, might inspire one to piece together a better movie in his head. And there’s something comforting about simple, block-like images that always mean exactly what they’re supposed to mean, like grade-school drawings that parents hang on the refrigerator for years.
Yet Insidious is being released in thousands of theaters, where moviegoers will be expected to watch the entire thing. An experience like that can only make people cynical about going to theaters. If only the film had been released directly to iPhones, as a vehicle for the new technology, it might be as interesting as the worst films of Edgar G. Ulmer. At the very least, this would save viewers the effort of having to walk out on it.