Film Comment Selects 2011 Reviews: BURKE & HARE and INSIDIOUS

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Film Comment Selects 2011 Reviews: BURKE & HARE and INSIDIOUS

On Thursday night John Landis, James Wan, Patrick Wilson, and Leigh Whannell helped close the 2011 edition of Film Comment Selects in grand genre style. Curated by the editors of the U.S.'s "most respected cinematic journal," FC Selects is clearly a premiere showcase of the indie, the arty, and the oddball--with "sneak previews" of higher profile titles such as Burke and Hare and Insidious thrown in for good measure.   

If you've ever seen John Landis speak, either in person or in docs such as American Grindhouse, you know he's a great raconteur--candid, funny, smart, and privileging the listener with the kind of insider details that are genuinely interesting. Thursday evening was no exception, as his introduction and Q&A session for Burke and Hare made you like the film, and respect the filmmaker, even more than you might have been predisposed to. In between amusing anecdotes about folks like Christopher Lee (who lamented to Landis before being knighted that it would be greeted with groan-worthy "Dracula" headlines--which is just what happened), the director remarked that he had come across fourteen previous screen versions depicting Burke and Hare's crimes, and all but one (The Anatomist) were horror films. Thus, "doing it as a romantic comedy," he explained, "appealed to me." 

It's a daring concept, but one that isn't quite pulled off in execution. That's because although the romcom aspects are the least developed parts of the script, they seem designed to carry more and more of the emotional weight of the story as the film progresses. Certainly Isla Fisher, with her endearingly exaggerated brogue, does a solid job as a fictional love interest injected into the otherwise quasi-historical events. However, the screenwriters--who are capable of both clever dialogue and memorably grisly sight gags--don't seem to get that even a blackly comedic romcom needs more than the old standby of the first kiss that keeps getting interrupted. And with the romantic subplot not holding up its part of the deal and yet using up a lot of energy and screen time, Burke and Hare's other potential strengths, its horror and farcical elements, feel only about halfway realized. Reimagining Burke as, ultimately, a noble villain is also an interesting decision, and Simon Pegg is a good choice for such a role. The best of his scenes with Andy Sirkis's Hare occur early on, as they play the down-and-out duo as a kind of Regency era Abbott and Costello. But as Hare gradually resuscitates his marriage, and Burke spends most of his time awkwardly courting Fisher's would-be actress, the actors in the title roles become consistently outfunnied by Tom Wilkinson and Tim Curry playing a pair of feuding surgeons. So although a diverting effort on the whole--it's hard not to like a movie that features a Ray Harryhausen cameo--Burke and Hare suffers from too many dead-ends and misfires to be the kind of enduring minor classic that John Landis has excelled at throughout his career.  

The crowd that drifted into New York's Walter Reade Theater for James Wan's Insidious was decidedly more downtown. Perhaps they were looking for a bleeding edge horror film, given Wan and writer Whannell's previous collaboration on a low-budget effort entitled Saw some years ago. What they got was a rather conventional haunted house film that, by virtue of the fact that the entire subgenre (apart from the Paranormal Activity flicks) hasn't received much attention in recent years, comes across as refreshing. As Wan clarified in the post-screening Q&A, his inspiration was classics along the lines of The Haunting and The Innocents. To his credit, as well as Whannell's, the film succeeds for long stretches despite the burden placed upon it by such comparisons. Jamesian motifs and imagery appear throughout, and they're nicely supplemented by a couple of modern touches that create a great sense of mystery--you wonder where things are going, and even when you sense what will happen next, Wan's direction milks the maximum tension from several sequences. 

Whannell, who's quite amusing in the film himself as a SyFy Channel-style ghostbuster, explained to the audience that there are several genre tropes that he can't stand (e.g., the ol' medicine cabinet jump scare) and others that he wanted to play with deliberately. Some of his revisionism is clear when watching Insidious while other points of departure I hadn't really noticed until he identified them. The problem, however, is that by the third act it becomes clear that all this clever tweaking doesn't really add up to a finished product that's either highly original, or highly compelling, let alone both. That's because in its construction everything in Insidious seems to stand in reaction to all those other films it's dimly echoing--"This recalls The Entity except for x, feels like Poltergeist but for y, and improves upon The Amityville Horror by doing z." What's missing is that truly fresh creative leap that would make me appreciate it beyond the in-the-moment scares and so make me look forward to repeated viewings. Yes, there is a premise involving a kind of "soul/body problem" that I don't think has been done before. However, the dramatic unpacking of this idea in the third act is where the film takes a disastrous turn into middle-brow fantasy, with Patrick Wilson stumbling around in the vicinity of so many shadow-enveloped fog machines that for a moment I felt I was watching The Phantom of the Opera again. 

Still, as a thoughtful PG-13 horror outing with an agreeable cast--Wilson is apparently as likable in real life as one would suspect from his screen persona--Insidious just might turn out to be a hit when it's released on April 1. The film's mixing of the old and the new should help it appeal to a range of audiences... I just wish that the resulting combination didn't feel so calculated.
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