There are many reasons for a family not to buy a big, dark creepy house with shadowy corners and an attic full of junk just begging to hide some unspeakable monster — and not just because an infestation of evil really hurts resale value.
But Josh and Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne), the nice married couple in Insidious, are apparently unaware of this fact. They seem content enough as they move into their new home, but — are they? Traces of worry flicker in Renai’s eyes, and Josh, a teacher, seems to spend a lot of time at work when he could be grading papers at home. His absence becomes more of an issue when the couple and their three children are threatened by an invisible menace. The haunting starts simply enough — books knocked off a shelf aren’t particularly worrisome — but escalates to the point that one of the boys ends up in a coma-like state, mystifying doctors and terrifying his parents. Insidious traffics in pretty much all the standard Paranormal Activity-style haunted-house fare: bumps in the night, creaking steps, doors that violently fling open, the not-quite-intelligible and deeply scary voice on the baby monitor, flashes of mysterious faces in windows. But the film is stylish and quietly unsettling even in its derivativeness, and it delivers the sort of slow-building chills that ruffle the hair at the back of your neck, at least until the frights get a little too literal, in the movie’s third act. Written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan, the fiendish team that brought us Saw and the lesser known but grisly Death Sentence, Insidious is low on gore, preferring to creep up on you from behind than slap you in the face with a blood-drenched hand. This approach and unnerving atmosphere works well in the film’s first half, when every sound is amplified and, like Josh and Renai, the audience isn’t quite sure what’s happening. Barbara Hershey ( Black Swan) shows up as Josh’s concerned mom, who seems to know more about the haunting than she’s letting on, and she brings reinforcements in the form of a no-nonsense medium and her two ghost-busting henchmen, who arrive with strange equipment and a welcome dose of humor. But frights barely glimpsed are far more disturbing than up-close boogeymen, and when Insidious starts to reveal its evil spirits, the creepiness all but vanishes. A seance scene turns out to be more ludicrous than bloodcurdling, and the final confrontation with evil forces drags on far longer than is necessary. By the time it’s over, Insidious is less scary than a mortgage payment.
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey.
Director: James Wan.
Writer: Leigh Whannell.
Producers: Jason Blum, Oren Peli, Steven Schneider.
A FilmDistrict studios release. Running time: 97 minutes. Thematic material, violence, terror and frightening images, brief strong language. Playing at: area theaters.