(2011) Supernatural Horror (FilmDistrict) Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Lyn Shaye, Andrew Astor, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Corbett Tuck, Heather Tocquigny, Ruben Pla, John Henry Binder, Joseph Bishara, Philip Friedman. Directed by James Wan
The things that happen to us when we sleep are mysterious, even with all the technology at our disposal. Nobody really knows what awaits us when we close our eyes.
At first glance things look pretty good for Josh Lambert (Wilson) and his wife Renai (Byrne) – pronounced “Renee” but spelled differently. They have just moved into a pretty spiffy old house. Josh works as a math teacher at the local high school – or is that college? We’re never really sure. I’m betting the latter because it’s a really spiffy house and Renai isn’t working. Well, she’s writing songs…but she’s also unpacking, taking care of two energetic young boys and a baby. Okay, she’s working harder than Josh is.
But there are some odd things going on. Things are being moved around. There are odd sounds that can be heard at night. Things disappear. Of course, some of it might be due to the chaos of moving. The sounds, well, it’s an old house, spiffy as it is.
Then things turn darker. Their eldest son Dalton (Simpkins) takes a tumble in the attic. At first glance, it doesn’t seem to be anything particularly serious; a little bump on the noggin. But he doesn’t wake up the next morning and nothing can rouse him from his slumber.
The doctors can’t explain it. His tumble didn’t produce any brain trauma. There’s no inflammation, no infection, nothing that would explain his coma, but he is most assuredly in one. After a few months of fruitless tests, the boy is sent home to lie in his own bed. A home nurse (Tuck) explains to Renai how to lubricate his feeding tube while Renai muses how the universe must be testing her to see how far she’ll bend before she breaks. It’s an honest moment but the universe isn’t done with her yet.
Things go from bad to worse. The paranormal activity in the house increases. Sinister figures are half-glimpsed and then fully seen. Things don’t just go bump in the night, they go CRASH BANG!!! Security alarms go off without reason, while the security company that installed them doesn’t respond.
So they do what any sensible family would do. They move. Josh’s mom Lorraine (Hershey) welcomes them to the neighborhood. Renai is relieved; at last the nightmare is over. But it’s not – it’s just beginning. The apparitions are showing up in the new place, more menacing and more solid than ever. At last, the couple in desperation calls a psychic that Lorraine recommends – Elise Rainier (Shaye). But before she shows up, she sends a couple of paranormal experts – Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Sampson), who show up with elaborate homemade equipment. The looks on the face of Josh and Renai are pretty easy to read although they’re polite.
Then Elise herself shows up and makes the pronouncement that it isn’t the house that’s haunted, its Dalton. You see, apparently he astral projects at night while he’s asleep and like most young boys, he goes a little farther than he’s supposed to, ending up in a realm she calls The Further (yes, it’s capitalized). That’s where people go when they die. That’s where Dalton is. That’s where dear old dad has to go to fetch him (you see, Dalton inherited his skills). And Josh needs to do it fast; there are some real bad dudes out there who have plans for Dalton’s empty shell of a body.
The movie was written and directed by the team who did the same for the Saw series, and produced by the guy who directed Paranormal Activities, so the pedigree is good. Wan does a good job bringing out the chills and that all-important sense of dread that haunted house movies need to have in order to be successful.
He’s got a decent cast to work with. Wilson is most often cast as a baddie but here he plays a troubled father with a skeleton in his own closet (and yes, that’s pretty literal) who is weak in moments when he should be strong. That makes him a little bit more likable in an odd way – he’s like, normal and not some Hollywood superdad. Byrne’s best scenes come early after which she’s mostly supposed to scream, cry and beg. She can do hysterical as well as anybody can.
For my money, Shaye steals the show as the psychic who is something of a nod to Zelda Rubinstein in Poltergeist. She knows far more about the afterlife than anybody alive, and is able to reach into the other dimension and communicate. Like Rubinstein, she knows trouble when she sees it and is well aware the other side has some things in it that should stay there – not that they’ll stop trying to cross over at any opportunity mind you. Whannell (who wrote the script) and Sampson add much-appreciated comic relief, looking at magnetic fields through View Masters. Priceless, I tell you.
Now, despite the twist (which is given away in the trailer so I don’t have a problem revealing it here) that I thought could have really been a game-changer much the way the twist in The Sixth Sense was, the movie doesn’t really add too much to the genre. What happens is that Elise Rainier goes off to explain the Further in great detail, with a whole lot of paranormal technobabble until all you can do is throw your popcorn at the screen and yell “enough!” The movie would have worked better without the explanation and left the cast to work it out on their own. I also thought the sending of the dad in to fetch his son was a little too reminiscent of JoBeth Williams going into the closet to rescue the late Heather O’Rourke from the light – I half expected Wilson and Byrne to start calling “Carol Ann!” in reference to the character.
Even with all that, this is still a crackerjack of a horror flick. It scares you properly; none of these false scares or red herrings; they come right at you and put the horror right in your face where it’s supposed to be. There’s no overt gore (although there are certainly some disturbing images of dead things) and the movie is the better for it. The humans act like rational people other than a couple of slight miscues but still in all this is as good a horror movie as I’ve seen for awhile.
REASONS TO GO: Some very effective scares and a nice performance for Shaye. Some of the off-beat humor is very welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really add too much to the haunted house genre and the twist is mostly a bunch of mumbo jumbo.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of creepy images and big time scares, as well as some foul language. The overall theme that involves a child vulnerable to demonic possession might be way too much for small children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first release from the new distribution company FilmDistrict.
HOME OR THEATER: While the big scary noises do enhance the movie and work best in a theater, the intimate nature of the movie is just fine at home.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: Cold Souls