For most of its first half, Insidious creeps along in top form as a classical haunted house movie, seething with chilling riffs and cinematic idioms that embrace the best elements of the genre. Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell (the cocreative team that unleashed the Saw franchise onto unsuspecting moviegoers in 2004) create a genuine sense of foreboding that many audiences may experience as the kind of imagery vaguely recalled from actual nightmares. Shadowy figures are glimpsed behind curtains or are barely visible through darkened windows, with the tension building from something that is only halfway there. Or maybe that something is all the way there and we just can’t make it out clearly enough through the haze of our gathering dread. There aren’t any cheap thrills or phony scares; the menacing tone is measured and well earned and doesn’t have to rely on things jumping out of the darkness. The terror often comes from what we don’t see, or rather what we’re afraid we’re about to see.
It’s a simple story about a young family–Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) and their three small children–settling into a new home. Again following classical form, there’s a presence in the house that either doesn’t want them there, or needs them to stay for the evilest possible reasons. When 8-year-old Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falls into an unexplained coma after a spooky encounter in the attic, Renai starts seeing the above-mentioned figures lurking around the house, sometimes none too subtly. Though the goings-on are unexplainable, no one acts crazy and Josh believes that his wife’s bizarre encounters are real. Like any sensible people who believe they’ve taken up residence in a haunted house, they move. But the spookiness moves with them and the menace gets worse as months pass and Dalton remains unconscious without reasonable medical cause. Since things can’t stay unexplained forever, the plot begins to intrude, especially when a geeky pair of paranormal investigators (Angus Sampson and writer Leigh Whannell) provide some slightly out-of-kilter comic relief. Fortunately their boss (Lin Shaye) is a bona fide psychic who’s all business, and she determines that the ghosts, or demons, or whatever they are want Dalton, not the house or its other inhabitants. As the explanations continue, it’s revealed that the little boy has the gift of astral projection and his spirit has left his body without really knowing it’s gone. If he doesn’t come back soon he’ll be lost forever, taken by the strongest of the creepy phantoms, a blood-red fiend who provides the most terrifying moments of half-glimpsed horror. It turns out that Dalton inherited his gift from Dad, who has repressed his own childhood encounters with out-of-body flight, but must revisit the dark limbo where all the specters lurk in order to reunite his son’s body and soul.
All this narrative sometimes gets in the way of the sinister unknowns that started the story, but there are still plenty of frights to maintain a consistently disturbing tone (and without a drop of blood or gore). Wan and Whannell preserve the less-is-more strategy to fine effect, honoring the legacy of a timeless horror style while ably stamping it with their own unique imprimatur. Whether or not you have a personal history of nightmares, there are plenty of willies to go around in the eerie confines of Insidious–an apt title for a movie whose ideas and images invade the mind with scary and spectral imagination. –Ted Fry