Saturday, May 14, 2011

Tiptoe through your subconscious fears with me: On the uncanniness of Tiny Tim

It's a little surprising that it's taken this long for it to happen, but a horror filmmaker has finally harnessed the demonic power of Tiny Tim.  Yes, I recently saw Insidious, the sorta-haunted-house sleeper hit from the makers of Saw (which I've managed to avoid to date), director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell.  On the whole, it's far from a great movie, but scary flicks have a way of slipping past one's critical faculties - I still walked out with the rubbery-legged, butterfly-bellied feeling that comes after a prolonged period of adrenaline and tension.  And I slept with a light on.  Shut up.

The most inspired moment was certainly the one where TT's signature rendition of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" is channelled unbidden through a turntable by one of the apparitions pestering a young suburban family.  As so often in horror, one person's scary is another person's silly - I could understand someone finding this gimmick simply risible (I mean, a modern family with a turntable? - Puh-lease.).  That I and many other viewers felt goosebumps is a testament to how close "cute" is to "creepy."  Tim's unearthly falsetto pushes the singing voice of a young girl, one of those sounds that inspires an atavastic "awww" in most adults, over that line into "ewww."  It's similar to the "uncanny valley" problem in robotics - the point where a robot is both too similar to a human and not similar enough, inspiring revulsion in a human observer (also the reason why some puppets are unsettling, especially to adult observers who are less easily able than children to suspend disbelief).  

I also suspect the sound of someone trying to be something they're not in this way fires off all sorts of unsettling subconscious questions - "Why is this person trying to fool me?  What are they really up to?" - like a stranger approaching you on the street with too big a grin and too bubbly a voice (any stranger who approaches you on the street in New York is a presumed menace, but that's a culturally specific phenomenon that's not germane to this discussion).  That the ghosts-or-whatever-they-are in the movie are menacing a child makes a disembodied voice faking child-like tones that much more mockingly icky.
(Image: Alliance Films & Poptower)

Critic/filmmaker/blogger David Cairns picks up on this last point when he observes that Insidious has a strong subtext of child-molestation panic and thus, "The Tiny Tim reference makes sense because TT probably fits mainstream America’s idea of what a deviated prevert looks like."  (Fair warning: the movie still at the bottom of Cairns's post is... startling, although not as much as it was on a huge screen in full motion.)  Which led me to wonder how many in the movie's target audience even have a memory of the performer, who was a novelty celebrity in the ancient days of the '60s and died in 1996.  His image certainly popped into my mind when I heard the song, and played a part in my reaction, but I'm super-old.  I doubt most of the whipper-snappers in the audience connected the song with anyone, but judging from the comments on that YouTube clip ("Thumbs up if you're here because you heard this song in Insidious," etc.), it certainly did the job it was meant to.

As for the rest of Insidious, some customary caveats of modern Hollywood horror apply: The ordinary-family-life scenes are bland filler, not very convincing or poignant; the third-act mumbo-jumbo explanations from paranormal gurus are far less interesting than the preceding mystery; comic relief bits are almost fatal to the tension; same for too much Dolby Digital noise and too many literal-minded visual effects in the big climax.  But when Wan and Whannell remember to be understated, the shivery setpieces deliver - my second favorite scene has a staticky baby monitor transmitting sinister mutterings from an upstairs bedroom.  I guess all my carpings don't amount to much when you consider I had to wait to write this until I could do it in full daylight with the window open.  Shut up.
"I sure hope this isn't a setup for another dumb 'Can you hear me now?' joke."
- Rose Byrne checks on the kids. (Image: Alliance Films &

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