Director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell could not have guessed that their modestly budgeted debut feature, Saw, would spawn a franchise that would mostly dominate the box office for seven Halloweens running. And yet it almost seems like they did. Though their continued partnership has yielded mixed results, Wan and Whannell do not lack commercial savvy, drawing heavily on past triumphs—Universal horror for Dead Silence, down-and-dirty ’70s exploitation thrillers for Death Sentence—while also keeping an eye on where genre films are headed. It seems no accident, then, that Oren Peli—the creator of Saw’s heir apparent, Paranormal Activity—serves as a producer on the pair’s latest effort, Insidious, or that the film represents their play on the suddenly lucrative haunted-house movie. And it’s also no surprise that they’re again turning to the past by reworking Poltergeist, all while offering up a complicated mythology that would serve a half-dozen sequels down the line.
All calculation aside, scary is still scary, and Insidious makes up in old-fashioned tension what it sometimes lacks in originality. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne star as a typical suburban couple, moving into a spacious suburban fixer-upper with their two young sons. There are early signs that the house is haunted—a misplaced book here, a creaky floorboard there—but nothing too serious until their eldest child falls from a ladder in the attic and drops unaccountably into a coma. When the comatose boy returns home, the terror amplifies with each day, getting so bad that Wilson and Byrne resolve to move. Yet the hauntings continue unabated, prompting them to invite an exorcist (Lin Shaye) and her two bungling assistants (Angus Sampson and Whannell) to cast out the demons.
Wan and Whannell are not seeking to reinvent the tropes that have served haunted-house movies for decades, but they invest them with a deranged energy that’s both bracing (Joseph Bishara’s screeching score is especially mad) and silly. The dark comedy peaks when the adorably analog ghostbusters enter the picture, but Insidious starts to fall apart once the cause of the hauntings has to be explained—and explained and explained—and the film starts exploring the cheesy spectral universe where ghosts reside. It’s like the ill-advised “special edition” of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind: Once the film goes inside the ship, all wonderment ceases.