Ghosts ‘n the Machines 


Insidious, Directed by James Wan, Opens April 1
Crash (1996), Directed by David Cronenberg, (April 1 at 92YTribeca)

Dropping before the summer juggernauts loom on the horizon is a modestly scaled haunted-house/exorcism throwback from the dubious innovator of the Saw series. In James Wan's Insidious, Josh (Patrick Wilson) and wife Renai (Rose Byrne) cope as their oldest son Dalton slips into a coma and their house hosts unwelcome visitors from the beyond. Old-fashioned peripheral scares, sensible pacing, and above all a consistent camera sense for rooms make for a horror movie that is almost more striking for its satisfying construction than for being outright scary (though audience members at one preview do beg to differ). Halfway through, the requisite explainer arrives—a guide and two advance investigators offered as grumpy-geek comic relief—and the supernatural aggression comes menacingly to the fore. Wan loses control toward the end with some goofy astral set design and muddles where before clarity reigned, but one is still struck by the use of sporadically lit pitch-black darkness (and there's also Barbara Hershey again with a differently iffy mommy to put alongside Black Swan).

More genuinely and deeply creepy—this is a movie where James Spader is the least queasy-making presence—is David Cronenberg's Crash (1996), screening as a one-off at 92YTribeca the same day Insidious opens. "It's all very satisfying. Not sure I understand why," allows Spader's manicured character, named James Ballard after the quintessential modernity-is-dystopia author behind the 1973 source novel. Now approaching the 15th anniversary of its controversial Cannes premiere, Crash is a hot-and-cool sexual-metallic roundelay among car-crash fetishists, who initiate, observe, and re-create traumas and trysts, all of which means a lot of paired scenes of coupling. Much as Dead Ringers sounds more gorily gruesome than it is, what prevails is the pervasive, hypnotic erotic compulsion of the underground-enthusiast characters, which in turn feels denatured (always on, always out of it). Still underrated as a director of actors, Cronenberg mobilizes some hypervivid, skin-crawling performances: Deborah Kara Unger as James's ice-blue-eyed wife, turned on to metal long before the first scene in an airplane hangar; Elias Koteas, sidling and shifting, as Vaughan, the voracious omnisexual re-orchestrator of vintage crashes (e.g., James Dean); Holly Hunter, as James's twitchy first point of contact; and Rosanna Arquette as an apparent full-time fetishist who wears architectonic leg braces like fishnet.

Regular DP Peter Suschitzky deploys blue-steel visuals, hoving camera, and car-contoured framing; Howard Shore supplies the tantalizingly unresolved score; Cronenberg shows extraordinary control, in line with Dead Ringers and building on the polymorphism of Naked Lunch and M. Butterfly, which next will turn antic with the underrated eXistenZ. There haven't been very many movies like this, before or since, and it's the perfect case study to prepare for Cronenberg's upcoming Freud-Jung film A Dangerous Method (not to say reviving a bizarre meta-footnote to the Elizabeth Taylor legend: in J.G. Ballard's book, Vaughan is obsessed with fatally colliding with her). Ballard, who died a couple of years ago, praised the adaptation as "the first film of 
the next century."

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