As George recovers from injuries in his apartment, he gradually becomes obsessed with his roommate's suspicious activities.
I’m such a sucker for a concise yet witty “elevator pitch” – that possible moment of hope when you have mere seconds to make a case for your project – for example, when you’ve got 10 floors of descent on an elevator and it’s just you and Steven Spielberg. What are you going to say?
If you’re the filmmakers behind the indie horror film Insomnium, you might throw out this humdinger, “It’s The Exorcist meets Hitchcock’s Rear Window – infused with the best pieces of your favorite bro-mance buddy comedies.”
Sound intriguing? Then you might want to keep your ear to the ground for any forthcoming release info on this very enjoyable possession flick.
Long time buddies (they’ve known one another since high school) George (Brad Pennington) and Phinneas (Clint Browning) share an apartment in Los Angeles. It’s a duplex, with their Russian landlord, Mr. Romanovsky (Leon Shparaga) living in the upstairs unit. George has returned to the apartment (atop an almost insurmountable flight of outdoor stairs) with injuries to one leg and one arm, rendering him basically immobile. His girlfriend Kim (Gena Shaw) and her friend Olivia (Larena Reyna) join the two boys on George’s first night home. After some drinking and relaxing, they bring out a Ouija board (there’s my patented phrase – “What could possibly go wrong?”), and as you can imagine, things quickly go south. That night, Phinneas begins to exhibit bizarre behavior (including some wonky eyes), and the journey of these two roomies begins. Add in the curiosity surrounding Romanovsky and his immaculately decorated apartment, and you’ve got several gears grinding at once – possession, an actual mystery and a couple of pot-smoking brahs.
At this film’s core, is its greatest asset – the relationship between George and Phinneas. Pennington and Browning are real-life high school buddies, and that familiarity and short-hand ease with one another shows. I was impressed that two roles which could have easily gone the route of “these dudes are total douches” – with the fact that they’re both big drinkers, pot-heads and Phinneas is a sort of slacker musician – but instead it exhibited a true authenticity and engaging humanity. The actors had tremendous chemistry (of course) and when things turn tense between the characters, it hurts a little bit. You like them both and you like them both together, so when their relationship’s bonds are tested, you’re likely to feel great sympathy.
As our lead, Pennington covers all the bases. He makes George a very likeable and very flawed guy. He’s obviously in love with Kim (a terrific supporting performance from Gena Shaw), but it’s clear that he’d go to the ends of the earth for Phinneas – perhaps even forsaking Kim to do so. Pennington shines most when Kim is away on business and this long distance erupts into relationship drama. There’s genuine hurt and betrayal on Pennington’s face. But George has his best buddy to fall back on – thus further cementing the strength of this friendship. Once again – the reality of longtime pals Browning and Pennington is a welcome and perfectly captured marvel. You’ve heard tell of real-life acting couples who may have chemistry in real life, but who appear clunky on-screen. I don’t know either of these actors personally (and of course they’re not a “real-life couple”, just friends), so I can’t make such a call. Perhaps it’s an awkward and estranged relationship off-screen, which is why it’s so perfect in Insomnium? An investigation for another day.
But it’s Clint Browning as Phinneas who really steals the show. Up front, Phinneas is a lazy slacker, pot-smoking musician with stringy blonde hair, but as the creepiness factor in the house ratchets up night after night – Browning is given the opportunity to just be creepy. And he pulls it off nicely – whether wandering through the apartment’s hallway or scratching something into his wall. The most fascinating thing, is that we’ve gotten to know and like this loveable loser – so there’s genuine sympathy when he continues to fall down the wormhole.
There’s a scene in the film – following a physical altercation between George and Phinneas – where Phinneas is doing his possessed sleep-walking thing – which finds the two of them on the floor. It’s a terrific scene which perfectly illustrates the friendship at its strongest. Despite the potential danger from Phinneas in his possessed states, and George’s fear and anger over these episodes, they’ll still end up laughing and bonding. The scene continues the next morning – where they have both fallen asleep in those same positions. Perhaps it’s a weird moment to call out, but I found this heartwarming and now looking back on the film – heart-breaking as well. It’s not a gay thing (although these hot guys are shirtless through half the film) – it’s a brotherly bond and because it’s done so well (both in script and performance), you’ll find this relationship to be the most noteworthy triumph in the film.
The film is basically a one-location deal, so it inherently offers up some claustrophobia – even in the middle of a highly-populated Los Angeles neighborhood. Writer/director Scott Powers said that this final location used in the film was the fruit of a very long and difficult search in LA – and now post filming, the building no longer exists. It is definitively Los Angeles, and yet the steep staircase to the actual duplex makes it non-LA somehow. It gives the film a sense of anywhere-ness and that long staircase could certainly be an homage to The Exorcist (although it’s never used in the same important way as it was in Friedkin’s film).
Another Rear Window reference comes into play as George devises a distraction (including a “he’s coming back” signal from Phinneas) to get Romanovsky out of his place, thus allowing a quick and tense search of the upstairs apartment. I think the editing could have been a tad stronger here, in order to create extra suspense, but as is – it’s still a good scene.
The use of a possession plot is nothing new, but Insomnium puts a fun new twist on it – besides the use of a strong bro-mance bond at its center, it uses the simple idea of proximity, rather than demonic, Regan-esque possession of the innocent as its central idea. No spoilers of course, but I don’t think the ending was as clear as it could have been. Perhaps that is my own shortcoming, but from what I was told by the filmmakers – there are plans for a possible sequel and even a potential trilogy. So burning questions (nothing dire, mind you – the film works as is) will find additional answers in later chapters.
The film had its Los Angeles premiere at the inaugural Horror Haus Film Festival a few years back, where it was nominated for Best Feature Film and Best Actor (Pennington). It won an Audience Choice Award as well as a Best Supporting Actor award for Browning.
A fictional relationship – with tinges of non-fictional bonds as well as the actors portraying the characters exhibiting these tried-and-true connections – is the easy highlight of a very good film.
Insomnium is scheduled for release in 2019.