Adults tend to forget that when you're young, even lame scary movies are utterly terrifying. Hence the attraction. But the rise and genre domination of bloody-tank-top gorno films and their hard-R hijinks over the past half-dozen years—in large part thanks to the success of the Saw franchise—made it harder for teens and tweens to get scares at multiplexes (or prematurely twisted the ones who went ahead and snuck into Hostel, take your pick). Now director James Wan and actor/screenwriter Leigh Whannell, the creative team behind the original 2004 Saw film, are pushing the pendulum back the other way with the aptly named Insidious, a PG-13 flick that puts aside meathooks and boobs for fiendish but MPAA-friendly armrest-gripping scares that should work on any age group.
Insidious is almost two movies. In the first, young parents Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) move their two boys into a hulking new-to-them old house. While man-boy teacher Josh leaves for school each day, sad songwriter Renai is left behind with the boxes and the kids. In textbook haunted-house fashion, unexplained things start happening (books knocked off a shelf, disappearing sheet music). Devotees of Robert Wise's 1963 The Haunting and other classics from a more subtle era of film fright will thrill to the exquisite throwback action here. Wan uses silence and nuanced sound to build an almost unbearable mood of creeping dread, shot through with a handful of sudden shocks made all the more shocking by uncanny imagination and deft direction. (A particular scene involving Renai waking up to someone walking outside her bedroom window is sure to send popcorn flying.)
After older son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falls into a mysterious coma, Renai becomes further convinced that something is horribly wrong, though Josh doesn't seem to quite grasp or share her fears. (The deliberate slow-burn pace of the first half has the added benefit of allowing Wan and the cast to flesh out something like actual characters, not just the typical scary-movie shooting-gallery ducks.) The family soon moves to a new house, only to discover it isn't the house that's haunted. Which, thanks to Josh's creepy mom (Barbara Hershey, now cornering that market), ushers in the arrival of a grandmotherly spirit medium (Lynne Shaye), a pair of comic-relief ghost hunters (Whannell and Angus Sampson), and basically a whole new movie.
Genre nerds can have a field day with Insidious in the early going, trainspotting the various borrowed genre staples (the big old house, the creepy attic, the eerie rocking horse) and the way Whannell and Wan play around with them and add their own spin. There are also plenty of homages to/lifts from specific films here too, including Poltergeist, Psycho, the aforementioned The Haunting, and did I mention Poltergeist? The rollicking second half of Insidious is deeply indebted to the plot and the funhouse hydraulics of Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg's 1982 PG-rated subdivision horror classic. If you're reviving the non-graphic scary movie, you couldn't ask for a better inspiration, or even an outright template, than Poltergeist, and Wan does his acknowledged influence proud in set piece after utterly unnerving set piece. But it isn't unoriginality that hinders Insidious' second half, or even the introduction of tension-easing jokey moments.
The film's pacing builds and builds as the reels go by until it's fairly hammering away, but Insidious starts to lose its clammy grip. Without providing any spoilers, the advancing narrative forces the film to reveal more, to explain more, and to try to suspend more disbelief than its farrago of plot strands and loony rationales and multiple twists can support. After all, one of the reasons the first half is so deliciously effective is that everything is unknown, shadowed, intimated—the characters, and the audience, are trembling in the dark. As Insidious' script unfolds, it just can't maintain that unsettling air of mystery and ambient fear forever.
By the final reel, Whannell and Wan almost seem desperate to keep you jacked up and on edge, throwing in more stuff, more curves, more more. They modulate it all pretty well, but by then the spell cast at the outset is broken. Still, Insidious continues to do what a good scary movie should do, ultimately—every now and then, it frightens the living crap out of you. And by that point any true fans of scary movies are likely to be having such a good time with the sheer thrill-ride here that they'll barely even feel Whannell and Wan's kitchen sink clunking them repeatedly in the head.