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Critics Notebook | Film Comment Selects Closes With John Landis and James Wan

Critics Notebook | Film Comment Selects Closes With John Landis and James Wan

The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual Film Comment Selects series cycled through several tones on its opening weekend last month, with a lineup ranging from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s tragic “I Only You Want You to Love Me” to the grindhouse tribute “Hobo With a Shotgun.” For Thursday’s closing night screenings, however, the series maintained a more precise continuity.

In the early evening, John Landis premiered his black comedy “Burke & Hare,” and the late night crowd stuck around for “Saw” director James Wan’s crowdpleasing haunted house chiller, “Insidious.” Landis’s movie, a screwball take on the story of two 19th century grave robbers, aims for morbid gags, while Wan focuses on straightforward scare tactics. Landis, a legendary director primarily known for the likes of “Blues Brothers” and “An American Werewolf in London,” may not have a lot immediately in common with the 34-year-old Wan, a rising star of the commercial horror scene. Viewed side-by-side, however, the directors’ latest works reveal that both men are living in the shadows of their best creations.

Set in Scotland during the late 1820’s, “Burke and Hare” attempts the broad farcical approach of the satiric period comedies directed by Mel Brooks, but the jokes repeatedly flatline. Despite enthusiastic performances from Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis in the title roles, clearly relishing the opportunity to play a pair of wily entrepreneurs willing to snatch a few bodies for cash, the script by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft lacks the same inspiration.

Not that it mattered during the post-screening Q&A, however, when the always charismatic and funny Landis took the stage for a free-roaming discussion that included unprompted anecdotes about “Blues Brothers” and his knighted pal Christopher Lee, who has a bit part in the new movie. A natural at charming audiences, Landis’s presence often overpowers the merits of his filmography, as he proved yet again by destroying the bad taste left in this writer’s mouth after viewing “Burke and Hare.”

Wan’s own self-referential style can be seen within the plot of “Insidious,” a messy but not altogether ineffective effort at delivering one shock after another in near-systematic fashion. In an early scene, when troubled family man Josh (Patrick Wilson) sits in the classroom where he teaches and dozes off at the end of the day, a drawing of “Saw” villain Jigsaw is clearly visible on the chalkboard behind him. It’s almost like a Hitchcock cameo, a way for Wan to mark his territory, but it also reveals just how derivative the new movie is. Produced by the “Paranormal Activity” team and written by original “Saw” screenwriter Leigh Whannell, “Insidious” uses every trick in the book as if it were a splattergun, throwing everything out there and hoping some of it sticks.

Much of it does. As Josh and his wife (Rose Byrne) deal with the phantom entities wandering through their home at night, and try to unravel the mystery behind their son’s supernatural coma, “Insidious” develops an energizing spookiness. But we’ve been here before. References to “Poltergeist” and “Ghostbusters” abound, as do more obscure nods (such as a clever import from the William Castle campfest “13 Ghosts,” when somebody sees a specter looking through the blue lens of ghost-hunting glasses, as audiences did upon the release of that 1960 picture).

Wan has figured out the modern approach to making movies go “Boo!” with mathematical accuracy, which is a mixed blessing. After awhile, it becomes a Pavlovian reflex — when the lights in a room go down, silence takes over, and helpless characters wander through the dark — to simply hold your breath and wait for something freaky to jolt the room.

Occasionally fascinating, often accidentally silly and supremely indulgent, “Insidious” certainly has a better grab bag of gimmicks than “Burke and Hare,” but the long list of referents holds back its greater potential. Hugely (if earnestly) derivative, Wan’s feature piles on everything it can fit. Viewed alongside the Landis movie, it forms a double-bill that, in a sense, works perfectly for the conclusion of Film Comment Selects. Together, the comment these films make is that you’re never as good as your personal best.

FilmDistrict will release “Insidious” on April 1st. “Burke and Hare” does not have a U.S. release date.

criticWIRE grades:

Burke/Hare: C

Insidious: B

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