Hippos are big, easily-angered, in possession of large teeth, and big. If you piss off a hippo, you’re absolutely boned, because the things are so tough and huge you can’t hurt it, and it knows at least two ways to kill you, fifty if it gets creative. Statistically speaking, you’re more likely to get killed by a hippo than any other animal in Africa besides people. And yet, people do not fear hippos.
The theory that I always hear is that people aren’t afraid of hippos because they look cute. That may be true or partially true, I guess. My theory is that people aren’t afraid of hippos because they don’t look like they move very fast. I’m not talking about how fast they actually move and I don’t care either. The damn things just look so slow. I can’t be the only one that feels as though I can get within 10 feet of a pissed-off hippo and survive merely by walking away at a brisk pace.
A lion, however, is a different story. If I got within 10 feet of a pissed-off lion, running away is no longer an option. My brain switches over to fight mode, or maybe even “fuck it” mode. It is in the context of this awkwardly fumbled-through analogy that I’d like to talk about Insidious.
First, typical movie review stuff: I loved the shit out of the soundtrack. The opening scene is amazing, and I’m certain I’ll never love the beginning of a movie more than this one. The characters are utterly devoid of any kind of personality. The plot, and the way it’s revealed, is horrendously clumsy to the point where the entire move is basically explained in two banally shot conversations in the living room. The “twist ending” is lame.
Anyway, moving on. I’m not rocking any worlds when I state that horror movies depend on tension. Without any tension, there is no horror. Insidious does a great job of building up tension, and then diffuses it in two different ways, one forgivable, the other deal-breaking.
First, the forgivable one: Insidious has a habit of throwing goofy shit at you to lighten the mood. I say it’s forgivable because I can understand what someone was thinking when they wrote these scenes and these characters. They want to give you a moment to relax, or they might think that these moments of relative peace just makes the scary scenes scarier. First of all, I’m not sure it works. All it really does it take you away from the fear and bring you back down to zero, so you have to build your fear back up again during the next scene. I can’t recall any movie that inserted a comedic routine into its storyline and still came out scary. I can, however, recall the movies of Sam Raimi doing this and turning into pretty enjoyable works of film, but certainly not tremendously scary ones.
Second, the deal-breaker. Insidious just flat-out destroys its tension and I don’t know why, especially since it does a great job of building it up in the first place. To set the stage a little bit: the story of the movie is that a little boy goes into a coma after accidentally projecting himself too far. (Again, to gripe about the story some more, the audience is told all of this information in a conversation in the living room instead of being shown any of it.) The trouble begins when several spirits try to enter his body to come into the land of the living, in particular, a Satan-looking demon that the movie makes quite a bit of hullabalo about.
I’m going to pause here and talk about some other movies that created brilliant, unbroken tension. When you read the summary of this movie’s plot, you might have been reminded of The Exorcist, and that wouldn’t be an unfair comparison. In The Exorcist, a little girl is possessed by the devil, and while one could theoretically physically get away from the little girl’s presence, she herself is unable to do anything but be tormented. Not only that, but not until the end does it become even somewhat clear why the devil possessed this little girl in the first place. (It took me over ten years to finally figure out that he only intended to kill the old priest.) Because of this, a constant tension is created, and there’s no getting away from it. You begin to feel it as it takes its toll on the main and supporting characters; they become physically exhausted from fighting this monster from which there is no escape, which has no clear motive, and whose powers are wholly understood. And thus, a classic was born.
To take a similar position on tension from a more modern movie, let’s look at Paranormal Activity. Now, there’s nothing inherently scary about doors opening and closing, or footprints in flour, or even Ouija boards moving on their own. No, what makes this movie tense is that there is no escaping the haunting that is happening to these people. And when I say, “no escape”, there really is no escape. This, let’s say, demon sees everything that happens to this couple, whether it’s in the daytime or nighttime, whether they’re in the bedroom or the living room. And, unlike the little girl from The Exorcist, the demon has full range of everything in the house, including its inhabitants, going so far as to physically move the woman about while conscious or unconscious throughout the movie. You also definitely see the effect that this experience has on the couple. Again, they physically begin to break down, as does their relationship. There are no pauses in this movie for comedic scenes, just a slow spiral downward. Maybe you didn’t think “That plant moved by itself!” was so scary, and I won’t argue (or agree) with that, but one thing you must concede is that this movie is tense.
And finally, for my last example, Aliens, because while the movie starts off with the “demon possession” premise, it switches over to “monsters” at the end. There are many things that made the movie Alien scary, and while its sequel, Aliens, was not so much a horror movie as it was an action sci-fi movie, the aliens themselves are still terrifying. Recall my hippo/lion analogy. When the aliens are close by and able to reach you, you are dead. There is no getting away. There is no fighting back (unless you have mech-armor like Ripley.) In fact, when you’re up against the aliens, (what was the name again? I can’ quite reXENOMORPHS!) the only thing you can do is hope that there is a sturdy wall between you and them.
Anyway, back to Insidious. So, the movie does a great job of creating tension in the beginning, as the ghosts and the demon can seemingly pop up anywhere at any time. At one point, he’s chilling right behind some dude’s neck and he doesn’t even realize. That is tense. That is scary. The end of the movie fucks that all up.
It's worth noting that by the end of the movie, we have yet to really see the toll this experience has taken on our lead characters. The worst it ever gets is when the husband has a tendency to stay late at work. That's...about it. The wife doesn't develop any chemical dependencies. The husband doesn't acquire any suicidal or homocidal urges. These people don't even look tired. In fact, they seem to be pretty cool with the whole thing. But then the ending happens and anything that was somewhat decent in this movie gets thrown out the window.
For one, the male lead takes a level in badass, I guess, and he’s suddenly Neo. When he’s in the ghost world, he becomes ultra-strong and can now kill ghosts with a single blow. Snooze.
For two, the ghosts themselves then get nerfed into being nothing more than less hungry zombies. At one point, the male lead is running through a huge crowd of them with absolutely no concern at all. Then, he just gets away from them and we don’t even see them following him. These same ghosts then make an appearance in the human world, where they move so slowly it takes them over two minutes to walk ¼ of the length of the living room. There is nothing about that that scares me.
For three, the demon that spent so much time antagonizing these people throughout the entire movie seems to give up at the very end. So alright, there’s a scene where the male lead and his son sees the demon from across the room. Close-up on the man’s face, then pan left to the demon, then pan right back to the man and BAM! Teleportation! The demon is all up in his grill and he didn’t even see it coming. The little boy tries to run away but then BAM! Telekinesis! This motherfucker is at least three X-Men rolled into one, and you begin to feel like these two guys are flat-out screwed. They cannot physically escape, so what do they do? They physically escape, of course! How? I don’t fucking know. The demon literally watches them get away and just stands there.
For four, RUNNING AWAY. If you would like a thesis statement for this movie review, here it is: Shit you can run away from is not scary. So, like I said, the father and son escape the demon and get to another section of Ghost Land, whereupon they separate. The little boy encounters the demon hiding in a closet, and one cannot imagine a more one-sided fight than this. And yet, the scene just stupidly wastes your time. The boy spots the demon in the closet and then runs away. The demon does not chase. Then, he suddenly grabs the boy’s foot from under a bed. Got you now! But, no, I guess not, because the boy has mighty awesome calf muscles and frees his foot. But, oh noes! He gets grabbed again, and he...escapes...again. Scary.
The final time we see the demon, the boy is running down a hallway, while the demon chases him. Remember the aliens? Imagine for one second that instead of this being a teleporting, telekinetic demon, you have an alien. How long do you think it would take for it to kill him? Zero point nothing seconds, that’s how long. Instead, this boring demon in this boring movie take his own sweet time tracking down this boy and you hate yourself for ever being scared of this stupid fucking hippo.