Insidious: a-haunting we will go, Cold Weather is a diverting indie with UNCSA ties

by Mark Burger

It’s laudable that director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Wannell, creators of the original Saw (2004), would want to make an old-fashioned scary movie that relies more on atmosphere and suspense than violence and gore.

Unfortunately, that’s where the admiration, and the inspiration, dry up. Their latest collaboration, the low-budget Insidious, is their weakest yet, an insipid shocker that wastes not only potential, but also potential good will.

Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne play Josh and Renai Lambert, an attractive young couple with three young children. It’s not long, however, before things start going bump in the night, and shortly thereafter their oldest child Dalton (Ty Simpkins) lapses into an inexplicable coma.

Eventually convinced that something supernatural is plaguing them, Josh and Renai pick up stakes and move in with his mother (Barbara Hershey), but the spooky doings summarily continue, no matter where they call home.

There’s a menacing mood (courtesy David M. Brewer and co-producer John R. Leonetti) and a few jolts that portend spine-tingling possibilities, but all too quickly Insidious descends into dullness. Wilson, Hershey and Byrne are capable actors, but they’re let down by Whannell’s script, which contentedly offers a few nods to scary movies of yesteryear (it’s nice to acknowledge the classics), but stumbles in trying to establish its own distinct personality. It’s an ineffective, inconsequential film, and the actors are at its mercy.

Things start to really go downhill when Josh and Renai’s younger children all but disappear from the proceedings, never to be referred to again. By the time that psychic Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) and a pair of ghostbusting techno-geeks (Angus Simpson and Whannell) arrive on the scene to lend help, the film becomes an ersatz, latter-day Poltergeist (1982), although with less suspense and less success. It can’t end quickly enough.

Shaye plays it admirably straight-faced, and Simpson and Whannell lend easy-going, lighthanded comic relief, but their presence throws the movie off, and their characters come far too late in the story than to provide anything more than a slight, incidental boost.

Insidious needs much more than that to scare any life into it.

Cold Weather , the latest film from UNCSA School of Filmmaking alumnus Aaron Katz (editor/writer/director), is a droll, amusing character study masquerading as a mystery. Furthering the UNCSA tie, the leading lady is School of Drama alumnus Trieste Kelly Dunn, acquitting herself very nicely indeed opposite Cris Lankenau, who previously starred in Katz’ 2007 feature Quiet City.

Gail (Dunn) and Doug (Lankenau) are sister and brother living together in Seattle, Doug having dropped out of college. Their lives, both together and apart, are pretty mundane, but things take an interesting turn when Doug’s ex-girlfriend, Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), disappears from her motel room.

With nothing better to do, which appears to be a recurring theme in Doug’s life, he decides to investigate. Having studied forensic science before he dropped out of college, he also boasts no less an inspiration than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal Sherlock Holmes, whose mys tery stories he’s always enjoyed. To better get into a sleuthing mode, Doug purchases a pipe, even though he hasn’t previously smoked one. After all, it worked for Holmes.

Playing Watson to Doug’s Holmes is Carlos (Raoul Castillo), Doug’s likable co-worker. Together, and then with Gail’s help, they try to piece together what happened to Rachel.

Are they making something out of nothing, or is their a legitimate mystery to be solved? That Doug even considers himself remotely a sleuth, much less a latter-day Sherlock Holmes, is endearingly ludicrous. Yet, with Carlos and Gail’s support, Doug comes closer to the mystery’s solution than could have been predicted. And then what?

Collectively, the actors nicely underplay their character’s quirks, which keeps the film from settling into a predictable rut. Cold Weather is hardly a conventional belly-laugh comedy, but by remaining slightly off-balance itself, it likewise keeps the audience (and the audience’s expectations) off-balance. It’s weird and it’s wacky, but in a sly, subtle way.

Cold Weather opens Monday and runs through Thursday the a/perture cinema, 311 W. 4th St., Winston-Salem. Aaron Katz will be in attendance for Monday and Tuesday’s screenings and discuss the film after each screening.