Oh, the horror!

Even though Halloween fell during a school night this year, I had to treat myself to what has become my own holiday tradition: staying up late, alone, in the dark, and scaring the crap out of myself.

The previous two Halloweens, I accomplished this by searching for EVPs online. Whether you think they’re real, fake, or just wishful hearing, there is something undeniably creepy about listening to what sounds like distorted voices seeping up from behind a layer of static. And when you do it with nothing but darkness around you, you can feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It’s really fun.

This year, however, I was in the mood for a movie. Since I recently went to see Insidious Chapter 2, I had been wanting to re-watch the first movie. I had forgotten how enjoyable it was.

Criticism of the movie — at least among the critiques I read — largely centered on the film’s similarity to other horror films. What all these critics missed, though, was the sheer genius with which director James Wan paid homage to what is, in my opinion, the best horror movie of all time: Poltergeist.

Since I’m writing this from memory, I may neglect to point out all the similarities worth noting, but here are the ones in my brain right now:

1. Child goes missing, getting trapped in another plane of existence. Parent has to venture to other plane to retrieve child.
This is the primary similarity, and what allows the film to make all the other subtle references to Poltergeist. Without the central storyline similarity, the fun little winks and nods would be nothing more than extraneous story elements and coincidental set dressing.

2. Older woman with understanding of what’s on the “other side” comes to the parents’ aid.
This is another big one. In Poltergeist, we had Dr. Lesh and her two techie assistants, and then later, medium Tangina Barrons, come to the aid of Steve and Diane Freeling. Dr. Lesh lent scientific credence to what was happening at the Freeling house, while Tangina was kind of a new-agey, spiritual guru. In Insidious, the two characters were merged into the character of Elise. She’s a medium with credibility.

3. Somewhat bumbling techie dude gets “owned” by spirits.
Here’s where the nods to Poltergeist get really fun; where it’s evident the storyline similarities are intentional and not merely plagiaristic, and that there was genuine thought and affection behind it. Remember that, in Poltergeist, Ryan and Marty accompany Dr. Lesh to handle the audio and video recording and analysis of what is happening in the Freeling home. They are made to look a bit foolish at times — minor story elements that provide some well-placed comic relief. First, Ryan boasts about a time he documented the movement of a toy car as it rolled across a linoleum floor by itself — an event that took seven hours, and which was essentially undetectable to the naked eye, but which he caught through the use of time-lapse photography. Steve Freeling, obviously unimpressed with the story, then opens a door to reveal a room full of child’s toys flying wildly, time-lapse not needed. Ryan’s jaw drops. Audience laughs.

Poltergeist: Dr. Lesh with her assistants, Marty (left, looking a little Martin Short-ish) and Ryan Just-call-me-Billy-Dee-Cool.

Poltergeist: Dr. Lesh with her assistants, Marty (left, looking very Martin Short-ish) and Ryan (a.k.a. Billy Dee Cool).

Later, bespectacled Marty ambles into the Freelings’ kitchen to raid the refrigerator, apparently with a bit too much frat-boy swagger for the visiting spirits, who decide to show him who’s boss. He casually tosses a raw steak on the tiled countertop and, chicken leg in mouth, watches in growing horror as the steak first inches across the countertop like a worm, and then begins to self-destruct, as though invisible hands are ripping it apart. As his jaw drops, the chicken leg falls onto the countertop, and we see that it’s covered in maggots. Horrified Marty runs to the nearby bathroom to splash cold water on his face, and he’s treated to one of the movie’s coolest scary moments: He rips his own face off. (It turns out to be a poltergeist prank, of course.) That was awesome to watch in the movie theater.

Poltergeist: Creeping steak

Poltergeist: Creeping steak

Poltergeist: Exploding steak. (Note the tiled countertop.)

Poltergeist: Exploding steak.
Note the tiled countertop.

In Insidious, our techs, Specs (note the moniker) and Tucker, are each subjected to multiple personal attacks from the other side. My favorite is the moment when Tucker, while flipping through different light-filtering screens using a modified ViewMaster, is suddenly confronted by two of the creepiest specters ever put on film, smiling like demented circus freaks:

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 1.41.50 PM

If that doesn’t seriously freak you out, you’re dead inside.

The differences between Poltergeist’s Marty/Ryan duo and Specs and Tucker are there, in my opinion, only to make the characters less obviously similar. Wan isn’t trying to hit us over the head with the comparison, though he does want us to see it. So while Poltergeist’s Ryan was all business, both Specs and Tucker have a little of Marty’s college-boy confidence, which is quickly shown to be nothing more than a thin veneer of bravado hiding a whole lot of frightened little boy. But you get a slightly stronger connection between Marty and Specs, just because of the glasses — right? Hold on.

Insidious: Specs and Tucker.

Insidious: Specs and Tucker.

The ultimate uber-cool parallel — the one that indelibly links Specs to Marty in the viewer’s mind — is so stealthily incorporated into the film that only a Poltergeist geek/detail freak like me would catch it. But it’s brilliant.

It begins when the Lamberts first move into the second house. We see Renai Lambert and her mother-in-law, Lorraine, in the kitchen. What I noticed first (and got so excited about that I forgot to pay attention to the dialogue, and had to rewind) was that the layout of the kitchen mirrors the layout of the kitchen in the Freeling home enough to be obviously similar. The pièce de résistance was the inclusion of a breakfast bar with a ceramic-tiled countertop.

Renai and Lorraine are shot from the other side of the tiled breakfast bar, so that the bar is in the foreground, and you can’t help but notice it. This set element figured prominently in Poltergeist — go back and see how many scenes were shot in the kitchen, and how many times that bar is an integral part of the shot (see steak shot above). So in our first glimpse of the new home, we get, “Ta-da! Look — it’s the kitchen from Poltergeist!”:

Ceramic-tiled breakfast bar in kitchen; first scene in new house.

Insidious: Ceramic-tiled breakfast bar in kitchen; first scene in new house.

Poltergeist: Tiled breakfast bar in kitchen

Poltergeist: Tiled breakfast bar in kitchen

If you don’t quite catch it then, we also get a great walk-through of the kitchen — and a solid reminder of the similarity — in the setup for the “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” scene (one of the all-time best uses of music in a horror film — maybe in a film, period):

Insidious: Kitchen dining table on other side of tiled breakfast bar.

Insidious: Kitchen dining table on other side of tiled breakfast bar; doorway in rear-left.

Poltergeist: Dining table on other side of tiled breakfast bar.

Poltergeist: Dining table on other side of tiled breakfast bar; doorway in rear-left.

This wonderfully subtle elbow-in-the-ribcage, “hey, dummy, pay attention” pointing at the kitchen pays off about 3/4 of the way through the film, in this scene:

Specs lays head on countertop with steaks!

Specs lays head on countertop . . . with steaks!

BOOM! Specs, freaking out. With raw steak. On the tiled countertop. AWESOME, James Wan. Awesome.

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