Shot/Countershot: Insidious and Pigeons from Hell
Haunted house movies have a long and uneven history. Ever since Cecil B Demille's The Ghost Breaker (1914) filmmakers have tried to capture the fear this real-world phenomon inspires. Unlike vampires, werewolves and other creatures of the night, the haunted house film, at its best, plays upon a collective belief in the possibility of haunted houses. Unlucky few have seen a serial killer, been traumatized by backwoods cannibals, but everyone remembers the creepy house on the corner.
Even so, there's something elusive about catching the atmosphere that a haunting creates. Most haunted house films fall far short, relying on cheap closet-jumpers that mimic a carnival fun house rather than building the all-pervasive mood of a haunting. Maybe it is because film is a visual medium, and ghost stories often rely on what cannot be seen or known. Maybe, as in the case of Poltergeist(1982), it is best if some spirits lend their energies to the cast and crew.
James Wan did the right thing by stepping away from the shock horror of the Saw machine he created and into a more complex kind of film like Insidious (2010). Saw was effective gag-based filmmaking, but it didn't do much to sustain a mood or create sensations beyond the fear of physical trauma. Furthermore, the morality tales and artifice of Jigsaw's exploits never really reached any kind of convincing plausibility. Real horror films need to convince you they could be real, true stories. Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and notably The Last Exorcism use the device of documentary to sell the scares. Films like Ghost Story, Poltergeist, and The Changeling use the mundane facts of contemporary life to show just how real their stories are.
In the first hour of Insidious, James Wan demonstrates he's watched all of these films and learned a few lessons. The Lamberts have moved into a new house, they've got a new baby and Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) has got some things going for him at the office. If audience members can't all relate to this, they certainly know people like this. The Lambert's new home isn't a stock Hollywood suburban mansion, either, it looks like a real house that a family like this might actually own. Looks a lot like the Paranormal Activity house, for that matter.
Perhaps the best part of this first act is the way the film balances the scares that arrive as expected and the ones that are genuine surprises. Ghostly figures running through the house? Yes, we get those. Doors opening and closing by themselves? Yep, get that one down. Then, just when you think you've seen all of this before, the ghosts crank it up and actually reach out and touch Renai (Rose Byrne) in an unambiguous way. Then, it gets worse, until the Lamberts are driven out of the house. Moving out is a pretty simple solution to the haunted house problem, one that many real world victims opt for.
Personally, I've wondered about what happens when the ghost decides to haunt you and not your house. Seems like this could be a pretty easy thing for a malevolent supernatural entity to do. As the Lamberts settle into the new house, it is not long before Renai has more encounters with whatever it is that torments them. She's at wits end, and implores Josh to reach out for help. Under the influence of Josh's mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), he relents and invites Elise (Lin Shaye), a psychic with a team of ghost hunters, to help unearth the spirits. Unfortunately, as she tries to bust the ghosts, her long-winded explanations of The Further (a laudable but lackluster attempt at an original afterlife) drive off the tension and terror the film had developed for the previous hour. I can't see how this could be a film by committee, as it was written with Wan's longtime collaborator Leigh Whannell, but the second half feels as if it was another film's second half tacked on to this first half.
Robert E. Howard's short story "Pigeons from Hell", dating back to a 1938 issue of Weird Tales, is a more traditional kind of haunted house story. There are a few graphic novel versions, but the only filmed interpretation was one of the final episodes of the Thriller TV series. In the episode, as in the story, the two Branner brothers stumble upon a deserted plantation mansion after their car breaks down. There are a lot of pigeons around. They decide to spend the night. Johnny Branner is mysteriously murdered as he explores the upper part of the house. The other brother flees, makes his way to Sherrif Buckner (Crahan Denton) and has to convince him of his innocence and of the truth of his crazy sounding story. The pigeons have disappeared.
Brandon De Wilde) around the house, enough unusual things happen that he starts to believe Timothy's ghost story. Sherrif Buckner reveals what he knows about the abandoned mansion's sordid, if not supernatural, history.
As Sherrif Buckner tells it, the Blassenville plantation was owned by a trio of sisters who became increasingly brutal to their servants the further they fell from past Southern glory. At the nadir, the women fled the area and left the mansion to rot in the swamp. Jacob Blount, a former servant, is the only surviving person who remembers the house's downfall. Naturally, the Sherrif and Timothy seek him out.
Much like Elise in Insidious, Jacob knows a lot more about the supernatural than either Timothy or Sherrif Buckner. He's not entirely coherent, but he makes it clear that someone in the Blassenville house was participating in voodoo rites. Jacob is pretty sure the ghostly pigeons at the house are the hell-bent victims of Blassenville cruelty. He mentions "zuvembies", a female zombie, before he admits he fears a curse that would befall him if he ever spoke of the zuvembie. As he tends the fire, a snake reaches out of the fire and fatally bites him.
In the final minutes of the episode, they return to the house to confront the mystery. They uncover the zuvembie, and the corpses of the three sisters locked away in the attic.
Fortunately for Timothy and Sherrif Buckner, a simple lead bullet is all it takes to down a zuvembie. No magic incantations, no astral warfare or no religious intervention are needed.
Unlike Pigeons from Hell, Insidious spent nearly half of its running time with the protagonists doing battle with the creatures from the Further. With Elise as their confident guide, the mystery of the paranormal surrenders to a simple otherworldly adventure. An otherworld that looks a great deal like a Saw set.
Both films perhaps spend too much time explaining their supernatural elements, but Insidious dispels this mystery far too soon. Even in Poltergeist, a film which Insidious resembles the most, the uncertainty is sustained to the final moments of the film. As a result, the Freelings survive their encounter with the other side, but they are shaken and slightly less than victorious. The heroes of Ghost Story and The Changeling fare about the same.
Like most contemporary horror films, Insidious ends on a "surprise" down note of another possession in the family. This is supposed to be a final shock, but after all the shenanigans of the forty minutes before it, it only seems like a laughable trick.
On a technical level, the fifty years between the projects is clear to see. Pigeons from Hell is burdended by serious overacting and Timothy could very well be a lost member of the Cleaver family. Insidious offers good performances all around, the talents sell the first hour well, but again, they can't do much with the overload of the second half. Josh Lambert's easy acceptence of the other side, once he's there, does more to destroy the film's credibility than much else. Doesn't he know he is in the land of the dead? Even demi-god Greek heroes were afraid of Hades.
The soundtracks of both films use music in the usual supporting role, although Jerry Goldsmith's score for Pigeons from Hell is often as overwrought as the performances. There are a few moments where the soundtrack of Insidious threatens to break the fragile spell of suspense by being too present, but once the film crosses over the hour mark, it really doesn't matter.
Shot by David M. Brewer, Insidious gets alot of mileage out of a wide-angle lens. Exteriors are expansive, offering a bit of Kubrick's The Shining, and as the camera moves in on Renai, it creates a distortion which highlights her fragile state. Precise composition is a requirement of an effective horror movie, and Insidious deftly places the camera in the best place to mislead or shock the viewer. (In the first hour, anyway).
Pigeons from Hell was shot by Lionel Lindon, (The Munsters, Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Night Gallery), who made the most out of his television 4:3 frame and limited lighting resources. While the haunted interiors are well designed and lit by the customary expressionism-and-noir high key lighting, the exteriors of the house and the swamp around are a real highlight of atmosphere and black and white television cinematography. There are very few visual tricks at play, as the filmmakers let the simple presentation of a creepy story do most of the work for them.
Maybe it is just as well that good haunted house movies are so rare and sprinkled slightly through the history of cinema. Haunted houses themselves aren't all that common, but the odd house on that one street by your house, you remember where it is. Anyone brave enough to enter such a house will surely carry the experience with them long after they've run out the front door.
So it is with the films. The real ones will haunt you as surely as any ghost might. They will stay with you. You may shudder everytime you walk by its dusty video case, and perhaps you'll turn the face away. Like the ghosts themselves, these rare films call out, try to reach us and show the huanted world that lies around, and most importantly, ahead of all of us.
Shot/Countershot is a monthly film commentary series.