Film Review: Insidious

'Saw' creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell take a crack at an old-fashioned ghost story, and the results are pretty creepy: ominous shadows, strange noises and glimpses of freaky things flitting through the dark.

High-school teacher Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) and his wife, Renai (Rose Byrne), a singer-songwriter who’s put her career on hold to be a stay-at-home mom, are your average nice young couple: They have two young sons, Dalton and Foster (Ty Simpkins, Andrew Astor), and a new baby, and they’ve just moved into a nice new home. Nothing too fancy or gloomily extravagant: Just a warm, lived-in place where a pair of pleasant young people can put down roots and raise their kids with a little extra room to grow. They wish.

Shortly after the dishes are unpacked, the pictures hung and the furniture settled, the weirdness commences: Renai hears strange noises through the baby monitor, things disappear and inexplicably turn up in the spooky attic, and ten-year-old Dalton takes a minor tumble that leaves him in some kind of inexplicable somnolent state: He’s not in a coma, doctors say, at least not any kind of coma they’ve ever seen. It’s as though he’s just asleep and won’t wake up.

When Renai and Josh bring Dalton home from the hospital, the manifestations intensify: Renai sees more wandering apparitions than ever and little Foster whimpers that he hates his bedroom because he hears Dalton walking around at night. Showing uncommon common sense for a horror-movie couple, Renai and Josh put the house up for sale and move to a new place near where Josh grew up and his mom, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), still lives. Unfortunately, the haunting follows them, and they finally have to face facts: If they’re ever going to get a decent night’s sleep, they’re going to have to call in an expert. And the reason Lorraine has the number of a paranormal professional close at hand sparks the first of many revelations.

When all the supernatural jiggery pokery has played itself out, Wan and Whannell’s thriller comes up short. For all its remarkable restraint, it never achieves the delicate balance between concealing and revealing that made producer Oren Peli’s 2007 Paranormal Activity such a stealth phenomenon. But horror fans and filmmakers all know that there’s nothing harder to pull off than a straight-up haunted house movie: One false step or carelessly staged scene can bring the whole thing crashing gracelessly down. Insidious delivers a handful of good scares, never resorts to cheap “yowling cat leaps out of closet” fake outs and keeps the focus relentlessly on the relentlessly personal: Two ordinary parents take their stand against God only knows to save their child. Horror movies don’t get more basic or the stakes much higher than that, and when the fog and shadows have cleared, Whannell and Wan’s trust in human emotion pays off.