Friday, September 23, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Insidious (2011)

Produced on a budget of under two million dollars, James Wan's Insidious is a horror film that truly lives up to its title.  The word "insidious" is defined as "proceeding in a gradual way but with harmful outcomes," or, simply, "crafty" and "treacherous." 

In very large measure, that definition (and therefore the title itself) explains perfectly how the movie proceeds, both narratively and in terms of effective film techniques.  Particularly, this horror film's "stealth" villain is one who clearly -- and malevolently -- boasts a plan to achieve a wicked goal.  In making the movie's form echo its content, Wan and writer Whannel work patiently and assiduously, though with abundant twists and turns in the mix, to generate an aura of escalating terror and suspense.

Although Insidious's last act is shockingly and brazenly derivative of Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982) -- right down to the presence of two comedy relief parapsychologists and a female medium -- the movie still largely gets under the skin.  Insidious does so, in large part, without benefit of expensive special effects, instead opting for a patient, slow-build approach.  Insidious climbs to a highly disturbing climax, and as much as I felt  that the movie's slavish copying of the Poltergeist aesthetic was distracting, Wan's film nonetheless achieved its "insidious" goal: it successfully troubled my mind, and even my slumber.  The night I watched this motion picture, I felt deeply unsettled and anxious.  Despite the life force it clearly appropriates from Hooper's classic supernatural thriller, Insidious still terrifies.

Insidious dramatizes the frightening story of the Lamberts.  As the film begins, this harried middle class family has moved into a new home, and almost immediately, the audience detects that something is deeply amiss.  Books fall off the bookshelf of their own volition, and at night strange noises waken the family.  Then, young Dalton (Ty Simpkins) is injured in the attic and falls into an inexplicable coma.  His concerned parents, Renai (Rose Byrne) and Josh (Patrick Wilson) struggle to deal with this tragedy, but the night terrors don't cease.  Fearing the home is haunted, the family moves to another home...only to see the strange incidents resume.

Then, one day, Josh's mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) shows up and reveals that she knows the reasons behind Dalton's coma and also the strange phenomena.  She brings in a parapsychologist, Elise (Lin Shaye) who reveals that Dalton and Josh are both -- unwittingly -- accomplished "travelers."  In other words, during sleep hey can "astral project" out of their bodies. 

However, during these out of body experiences, there's always a risk of traveling too far, and getting lost.  That's precisely what has happened to Dalton.  He has trespassed into "the further," a world beyond our own and populated by the tortured souls of the dead.  And a dark figure there -- one who once sought to control Josh -- now seeks to control Dalton, and appropriate his body.

Desperate to save his son, Josh risks an astral projection to retrieve Dalton...

Insidious quickly proves itself an interesting blend of popular horror sub-genres.  For instance, the film commences as if a traditional haunted house movie, with strange phenomena roiling a busy suburban family.   Intriguingly -- and perhaps as a reflection of the hard times the middle class is now facing in America -- there's no "honeymoon" period here in the new house.  In most haunted house films, there's an early period of "euphoria" for the tenants  in the new home before the terror begins.  Here, scenes of domestic pandemonium occur virtually immediately, intercut with scenes of growing supernatural pandemonium.  The impression is of a family overcome from all sides.  Early on Renai complains to Josh about their marriage/life and says "I just want things to be different in this house," suggesting a troubled history.  "I'm scared nothing is going to change," she admits.

In raising but not overtly exploring this troubled background, Insidious begins from almost frame one to suggest a amorphous anxiety plaguing the Lamberts; a kind of siege mentality hovering over theim like a gray cloud. 

"I feel like the universe is just trying to see how far I bend before I break," states one of the characters, and again, that's a sentiment that a squeezed middle class -- dealing with foreclosures and unemployment -- can largely sympathize with.  In a country where families can't hold onto their houses or their jobs, Insidious suggest that malevolent forces are even after our bodies.

After the "haunting"-styled first act of Insidious, the films then shifts to a "possession"-type horror film, raising the dread that Dalton has been possessed by a demon or other supernatural creature.  Again, this set-up is undercut when we learn that he is not possessed at all...simply gone to "The Further."  And it is here, in this final reckoning that the Insidious, finally, disappoints by almost mindlessly, greviously aping every aspect of the Poltergeist screenplay. 

There, as you may recall, Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) helped the Freeling family to recover its missing youngest child, Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) from a hostile spiritual realm where she was being kept by an evil, avaricious spirit.  After explaining that realm in riveting detail, the parapsychologist and medium then sent the matriarch of the family, Diane (Jobeth Williams) to retrieve Carol Anne. 

In Insidious,  Elise plays the roles of Lesh and Tangina and provides all the necessary exposition about "The Further," and then sends family patriarch, Josh, off to retrieve his son.  It's so obvious and derivative a formula (down to the selection of shots in some cases...) that you get the feeling Insidious took the Poltergeist script and just performed a find and replace for character names and supernatural concepts.  Again, I can't be too blunt about this aspect of the film.  If you go back and watch the Lesh scene in Poltergeist and then the Elise scene in Insidious, you'll see for yourself just how uncomfortably close these moments truly are.   

In Hollywood, of course, this isn't called "stealing" or "copying," it's called homage. And in point of fact, the filmmakers could probably erect a good defense on such grounds.  For instance, Barbara Hershey appears in the film as a woman also targeted by supernatural forces, and this role clearly harks back to The Entity (1983), another great supernatural thriller that starred Hershey.  

Similarly, Elise's last name is "Rainier," a selection that suggest the original, true-life case upon which Blatty's The Exorcist (1973) is based.  In particular, a boy in 1949, living in Mount Rainier, was believed to be possessed by a demon.   Despite such reflexive touches, one still wishes Insidious could have found a way to dramatize its tale without so overtly aping Poltergeist's last act. 

Given this creative dilemma, why does Insidious work so well, overall?   Well, for one thing, the depiction of "The Further" is very well-done, and deeply unsettling.  There, lost souls wander the firmament and relive distorted, surreal "memories" of their lives.   The characters you see dwelling in "The Further" are eminently creepy and disturbing.   Furthermore, the film's stealth villain, an Old Crone, is deeply, monstrously frightening.  The film builds to a terrifying crescendo as the specifics of her "plan" fall into place, one rung at a time, and we detect how easily the Lamberts have been led astray. 

In other words, Insidious really creeps up on you, not truly revealing the villain's hand until the last act.  James Wan is well-known to genre fans as the director of Saw (2004), which sent horror films off in a particular direction that is often condemned as "torture porn."  Much has been made of the fact that Insidious is something of a corrective, relying on suspense rather than gore to horrify audiences.  I personally don't object to the Saw films -- any more than I disdain the slasher films of the 1980s -- but it's true that Insidious rewards patience and generates an atmosphere of authentic terror.  As much as my intellect had some deep reservations about the film, particularly the deeply nihilistic ending, my senses responded to Insidious precisely as the director wished.  I was deeply unsettled, and actually had trouble sleeping that night.   That's a nice sweet spot for any horror film to occupy.

Perhaps I felt so unsettled because the film's final twist -- so dark and hopeless -- mirrors, again, the feelings of many of Americans about the future right now. What malevolent forces are working against us while we're occupied trying to get the kids to school safely, or focusing on our careers?   While appropriating clearly and brazenly Poltergeist's essence, Insidious also ably and relentlessly charts this post-Great Recession Zeitgeist.

Poltergeist knew "what scares us" back in 1982, and Insidious updates that dynamic well enough for 2011.  How far can we bend before we break?  Does an angry, avaricious universe want to know the answer? 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

From the Archive: Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

One of my favorite horror films of the early 1970s remains the weird and wonderful Let's Scare Jessica to Death. At the time the movie was released, the critics didn't have many kind words for this atmospheric John Hancock production. "With the exception of Zohra Lampert's subtle and knowledgeable performance," wrote Time Magazine, "no one in the cast has enough substance even to be considered humanoid."

The New York Times was not much kinder, arguing that Let's Scare Jessica to Death "tends to lose much sense of what kind of movie it is...Among the actors, only Miss Lampert develops a characterization."

Despite such disappointing notices, I always fall back on a specific equation when reviewing horror films. The bottom line is that genre films are supposed to be scary. How a movie reaches that common denominator is a matter of taste, style, and the individual gifts of the director. Alas, today many directors in the industry think that they can scare audiences with expensive visual special effects.  I believe that's an abundantly tricky proposition.

Oppositely, Alfred Hitchcock believed he could terrify audiences with misdirection, surprise, and shock. He utilized every arrow in a formalist's quiver (expressionist angles; shock cutting and the like) to generate feelings of fear. William Friedkin, auteur of The Exorcist adopted an almost documentary-style approach to his horrific material, making it feel "real" and authentic to involved audiences.  Basically, good horror director finds a way to "mine" audience terror, and keep it in play as long as possible. I submit that Hancock also accomplishes this task in Let's Scare Jessica to Death, and in relatively unconventional fashion.

In case you don't recall the specifics of the narrative, Let's Scare Jessica to Death involves a woman who has suffered a nervous breakdown, the sensitive Jessica (Zohra Lampert).  She "starts over" with her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) and a buddy, Woody (Kevin O'Connor), relocating to New England, where a new home awaits them.

In a quiet, rural town, Jessica and her friends move into a grand old mansion...and find a strange squatter already dwelling there, a mysterious woman named Emily...who claims to be a traveler. Emily seems to be attracted to Duncan, and soon a disturbed Jessica, spurred by her personal insecurities perhaps, begins to hear whispers in their new house. She also experiences visions of a young woman in white. The sentinel seems to be trying to warn her about something...

When Jessica visits the local antique store, she learns from the proprietor that her "new house" once belonged to Abigail Bishop...back in the 1880s. Abigail, a beautiful woman, drowned in the cove on the eve of her wedding, but some folk suggest she yet some kind of treacherous, ravenous, man-eating vampire. This thought terrifies Jessica, and when she goes swimming in the creek later, Emily attempts to drown her.

Before long, Jessica grows suspicious of her husband, Duncan, too . For one thing, he has a strange mark on his neck, just like all the old men in the nearby village. For another, he refuses to acknowledge that strange things are happening. Jessica fears she is losing her mind, but then  one night -- in the stillness of her bedroom --  a community of decrepit vampires arrive to feed on her. She flees to a rowboat as an army of the dead pursue...

In my opinion, Let's Scare Jessica to Death finds a commendable way to reach a pinnacle of "scariness." It's a more difficult and more subjective approach, perhaps, as it involves the auspices of texture, feeling and mood. Indeed, the film's overall narrative makes precious little sense if taken as a whole. There are few dramatic "action" scenes where anything substantial really happens (save for an exquisite jolt moment early on), and even fewer special effects.

Yet the film remains, in the best sense of the word, creepy. It is a scary, unnerving little production and one that puts a viewer ill-at-ease almost from the first frame. It is difficult to chart the manner in which this "mood" is achieved. One might make mention of the brilliant cinematography as a starting point. The film is hazy and overcast at times, feeling like a half-remembered dream.   And dreams, as we all intuitively understand, have no responsibility to unfold in a fashion that makes "logical" sense.  Instead, it's very possible that movie is crafted from the mental standpoint of a disturbed, off-kilter individual.

Additionally, one could point to the overtly Gothic imagery and overarching aesthetic: the beautiful opening view that reveals a fog settling over the placid waters of an idyllic cove, for instance.

The sun is orange and looms low but powerful in an apricot sky, forecasting night. A sad, isolated figure (Jessica) sits alone in a canoe, a kind of post-modern Lady of Shallotte. The villain is a porcelain woman adorned in flowing white dress, a contemporary version of Rappaccini's daughter, who brings terror and death to anyone who treads too close.

On a simple visual level, Jessica's abandoned mansion is an imposing edifice too, inspiring feelings of gloom and foreboding.  It's a place with a dark past, and the imagery reflect this dark "soul."  The architecture is ably filmed from multiple low angles to inspire subconscious feelings of menace and fear.  This choice, and the film's other canny images too, play on old dreads, perhaps, but effective ones nonetheless, and so Let's Scare Jessica to Death is a lovely and even poetic horror film, at least in the visual sense. And film, of course, is primarily a visual medium.

Director Hancock has also taken special care to suggest (rather than definitively depict) the movie's most horrific encounters. That's another trick for mood-drenched horror movies. Consider for a moment the impact of The Blair Witch Project. Almost nothing overtly horrific is seen on screen, but the overall effect of seeing the witch's icons and figures (which she leaves behind in the woods), the uncertainty of being lost, and the paranoia of the kids, combine to create a mood approaching abject, throat-tightening terror.

Let's Scare Jessica to Death adopts a similar modus operandi. There's an unsettling moment in a darkened attic when a shadowy figure shifts suddenly in the frame's foreground while Jessica is seen in the background. This dark blur is never clearly detected. It is visible merely as a black movement; for a split second. What is it? Who is it? We don't know, yet its presence unsettles us.

Similarly, the old men of the town are often referred to in film books (and in this post too...) as "vampires." As is the winsome Abigail. Yet these characters aren't your garden-variety cape-and-fangs, Euro-trash sort. They're more like a mob of undead zombies, moving slowly, strangely; gnarled in their old age and enigmatic in their agenda.   They aren't exactly what we expect then to be, and this break with genre convention and traditional depiction makes them all the more disturbing in nature.  There may even be some kind of unexcavated message here about how men "feed" on the life force of women, a fate which the troubled Jessica attempts to reject.

Had Hancock desired it, he could have provided increased clarity about these aged specters; their nature and history. Instead, like that fast-moving and frightening blur in the attic, the director merely hints at origins, nature and purpose. A tried-and-true horror momvie method of scaring audiences involves the removal of clarity, of explanation, from reality's equation. Ambiguity, as was once stated on MST3K, is scary.   Abundantly so.  Here, the audience starts to wonder, along with Jessica, if it has really seen or understood  the nature of what is happening.  Like Jessica, our grip on reality becomes questioned.

New England Gothic.  That's the overwhelming mood of Let's Scare Jessica to Death. There's an ancient evil here, a town with a dark secret, one woman's struggle with sanity...and a coven of blood-thirsty old men.  No spoon-fed explanations.  No familiar (and therefore "safe") villains or depictions of monsters.

What else could one desire from a  horror movie? Director Hancock sets a grim, dreamy mood, and viewers get to revel in his effective handiwork for eight nine hypnotic minutes.  Even today, Let's Scare Jessica to Death remains grim, surreal, and scary. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #142: The Secrets of Isis: "The Lights of Mystery Mountain"

The highest rated program on Saturday morning television circa 1975-1976 was the superhero program The Secrets of Isis, originally a portion of The Shazam/Isis Hour on CBS.

Created by Filmation under the aegis of Lou Scheimer, The Secrets of Isis starred beautiful Joanna Cameron as Andrea Thomas, a science teacher at Larkspur High School who – on a trip to Egypt – unearthed a golden Egyptian amulet that gave her “the powers of animals” and “power of the elements.” After this great discovery, Thomas became – in the words of the voice-over narrator – a “dual person,” both a mild-mannered teacher and the remarkable deity, Isis.

In “The Lights of Mystery Mountain,” which first aired on NBC on September 6, 1975, Andrea is faced with an unusual mystery. One of her students, Cindy Lee (Joanna Pang) photographs what appear to be flying saucers over Mystery Mountains.

Additionally, there are reports of an abandoned car in the area and “burn spots” on the ground nearby, telltale signs, perhaps, of an alien abduction. A panic begins to build amongst the locals. “What are you going to do if we bring you back a real life UFO?” Andrea asks her superior at Lakespur.

Andrew, Cindy and Rick Mason (Brian Cutler) investigate the mystery, and soon learn that a shady real estate developer, Mr. Moss, has been arranging false UFO sightings with the help of two teenage boys. The boys believed t it was all just a harmless prank at first, but soon realized that Moss meant business, and was trying to run off the denizens of Mystery Mountain so he could purchase the land and tap into a newly discovered vein of gold.

Fortunately, Isis teaches Mr. Moss a lesson. She first pursues him by air. “Oh Sun that changes day to night, help me stop this man in flight,” she declares, invoking the power to fly and chase him.

Later, Mighty Isis corners Mr. Moss by stating “Ancient Sphinx – all knowing and wise – confront this man with his own lies.” Suddenly, a desperate Moss is ambushed by tiny UFOs and -- his mind cracked -- begs for help from Isis. She takes him to the local sheriff and the matter is finally resolved.

As you can probably tell from the above-synopsis, The Secrets of Isis isn’t exactly high-brow entertainment, but nor was it meant to be. Instead, the episode plays – roughly – at the level of juvenile a Scooby Doo episode, or perhaps a Super Friends episode of the mid-1970s era. In other words, there’s no real violence to speak of, nothing particularly dangerous about the story, absolutely nothing distinctive about the main characters, and a strong moral lesson is conveyed by the end of the twenty-two minutes.

Much of the program plays like warmed-over Adventures of Superman clichés, with characters noting that they never see Isis and Andrea at the same place at the same time. Meanwhile, Rick Mason is the Lois Lane of the show; often in need of rescue and always condescending to Andrea while simultaneously in love with Isis.

What makes The Secrets of Isis particularly memorable for folks of Generation X is the presence of Joanna Cameron in the lead role. The actress conveys a strong sense of presence, decency and strength as Isis and -- by sheer force of charisma -- manages to overcome some of the poorer special effects and hackneyed plotting.

Dressed in a white, jewel-bedecked, sleeveless (and short….) gown and an Egyptian-style headdress, Cameron is  an absolute knock-out too.

In the mid-1970s, female superheroes were all the rage in the pop culture with the likes of Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, Lindsay Wagner’s Bionic Woman, and Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl. Today, many kids of that era (myself included) retain strong memories and impressions of these super-powered women crime fighters, and it’s probably fair to state that the impression of strength, decency and power such characters exerted survives the sometimes weak storytelling on any particular series.

Of the bunch, The Bionic Woman is undoubtedly the best program overall, with Wonder Woman coming in a close second. The Secrets of Isis does not play its action as camp in the style of the Adam West Batman (1966-1968), like Electra Woman and Dyna-Girl, but today may nonetheless be interpreted as camp simply because tastes have changed so radically in the intervening thirty-five years.

That fact established, The Secrets of Isis is still perfect, unjaded entertainment for young children, and, I suppose, for those of interested in a sense of nostalgia.

One contextual, culture thing I observed in “The Lights of Mystery Mountain” is that the bad-acting teenagers learn their lesson, are repentant, and then treated with mercy and understanding by Isis. She sees that they are sorry for their actions, and sees no need to pursue the matter further, or ruin their futures over one mistake.

In today’s America, I don’t think we’d see such mercy. Instead, the kids would be tried as adults, and locked up in jail for five to ten years.

We have come a long way, baby, since 1975. But I’m not entirely sure we’re headed in the right direction. The Secrets of Isis is an innocent Saturday Morning TV series for a much more innocent time in American history.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Android

Identified by Anonymous: Alicia (Jean Marsh) in The Twilight Zone: "The Lonely."

Identified by Anonymous: Grandma (Josephine Hutchinson) in The Twilight Zone: "I Sing the Body Electric."

Identified by Wordboy: Trent (Robert Culp) in The Outer Limits: "Demon with a Glass Hand."

Identified by Anonymous: Rhoada (Julie Newmar) in "Living Doll."

Identified by Wordboy: Andrea (Shirley Jackson) in Star Trek: "What are Little Girls Made Of?"

Identified by Wordboy: Rayna (Louise Sorel) in Star Trek: "Requiem for Methuselah."

Identified by SGB: Zarl (Leigh Lawson) in Space:1999: "One Moment of Humanity."

Identified by Wordboy: A Fembot from The Bionic Woman.

Identified by SGB: Cyrus (John David Carson) in The Fantastic Journey: "Beyond the Mountain."

Identified by Wordboy: REM (Donald Moffat) in Logan's Run (The Series).

Identified by SGB: Hugo the Prison Guard (Walter Hunter) in Buck Rogers: "Unchained Woman."

Identified by Wordboy: Brent Spiner as Lt. Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Datalore."