Genre nerds can have a blast with Insidious, trainspotting the various borrowed genre staples (the big old house, the creepy attic, the eerie rocking horse) and lifts from specific classics (Poltergeist, Psycho, The Haunting, and did we mention Poltergeist?). Then again, one of the reasons scary movies scare you is that you know what’s coming - or, even better, you think you know what’s coming and it turns out you don’t.
The Saw writing team of screenwriter-actor Leigh Whannell and director James Wan have a field day here, mixing and matching and wrongfooting and generally going nuts with skilled variations of classic horror tropes.
Insidious is almost two movies. In the first, young parents Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) move their two boys into a hulking old house. While man-boy teacher Josh leaves for school each day, sad songwriter Renai is left behind with the boxes and the kids and, in textbook haunted-house-flick fashion, things start happening. Wan uses silence and subtle sound to build an almost unbearable mood of creeping dread, shot through with a handful of sudden shocks. As older son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), falls into a mysterious coma, Renai becomes convinced that something is horribly wrong. (The deliberate pace has the added benefit of allowing the cast to sketch out something like actual characters, not just Sims stand-ins.) The family soon flees to a new house, only to discover it wasn’t the house that’s haunted.
That signals the arrival of Josh’s creepy mom (Barbara Hershey, cornering the market on creepy moms), a grandmotherly spirit medium (Lin Shaye), a pair of comic-relief ghost hunters (Whannell and Angus Sampson), and, basically, a whole new movie, this one heavily indebted to the plot and funhouse hydraulics of, yes, Poltergeist.
Although the pacing increases until it’s hammering away, Insidious starts to lose its clammy grip as the advancing narrative forces it to reveal more and to try to make more sense than its farrago of plot strands and loony rationales and multiple twists will bear. But by that point, fans of scary movies are likely to be having such a good time that they’ll barely even feel Whannell and Wan’s kitchen sink clunk them in the head.