Silver Screen: Insidious ***1/2
It's easy to forget, seven awful sequels later, that Saw was once a nifty little underdog of a movie that generated some great scares on a tiny budget with almost no big-name stars to anchor it. The series ultimately became known as the most prolific and dunderheaded entry in the torture-porn genre, to say nothing of getting lost in its own absurd mythology and the nauseating neo-morality of its increasingly ridiculous antagonist, but that first movie was a cool little concept steeped in grimy atmosphere and, yes, a little splatter. And the whole frugal affair was overseen by first-time writer Leigh Whannell and first-time director James Wan.
Wan and Whannell reteamed once already in the even-less-spectacular-than-it-sounds killer-doll movie Dead Silence. Let's just follow the lead of pretty much the entire moviegoing public and pretend that didn't happen, because Wan and Whannell's latest horror flick, Insidious, is a pretty interesting counterpart to Saw.
From a business standpoint, Insidious closely follows the Saw formula: low budget, little starpower, confined setting, lots of atmosphere. But as a film, it's more like a response to Saw than a followup. Whereas Saw was all serial killers and splatter, Insidious takes a relatively more subdued approach, trading gore-smeared death machines for squeaking doors and shadowy figures, and swapping gritty faux-realism for spooky specters.
Josh (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) are the prototypical couple to be terrorized in a haunted-house movie: an optimistic pair of young white people with a respectably Protestant-sized brood of children who buy their dream house, said dreams being apparently old and creaky and menacing. All is well until their oldest son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), is playing in the cavernous, dramatically lit attic and hits his head. Though he seems fine, the next morning he fails to wake up. Even though doctors can find no indications of brain trauma or physical reason for him to be in a coma, he seems to be in one nonetheless.
What they don't teach you in med school, however, is that sometimes when people appear to be in comas they're actually trapped beyond this life in a spectral land called the Further, populated with restless ghosts who have their eerie ghost-eyes on the boy's vulnerable, ready-for-possession body. (Even if they did teach doctors that stuff, insurance wouldn't pay for it anyway.)
It's tough to deny the significant overlap between Insidious and both the Poltergeist movies and Paranormal Activity: Family is besieged by ghosts who haunt not their house but one of their children, who the ghosts want to drag away into a strange realm, and the father must combat these spirits after attempts to call in paranormal experts and even relocating the family fail to stave off the evil. Insidious plays out more at the pacing of Paranormal Activity, sans the documentary/found footage gimmick, and Dalton's demon stalker is awfully reminiscent of the one haunting that film's tormented, voluptuous Katie.
Of course, both Poltergeist and Paranormal Activity themselves drew on established haunted-house story tropes, even if they did manage to provide more unique takes on the genre. Still, for whatever Insidious lacks in novelty, it is still a nerve-jangling bit of fun. Wan conjures up plenty of scares, sometimes via atmosphere and suspense, and just as often sound cues and quick-cuts to startle.
Wan and Whannell pull the whole thing off with a bare minimum of splatter-- almost none, actually-- and costars Byrne and Wilson help to further class up the whole project. At times Insidious plays like a highly evolved carnival ghost-house ride, but then again, carnival ghost-house rides can be a lot of fun.