Fairly or not, director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell will forever be known primarily as the creators of the Saw series. It’s true that the first installment, the only one that Wan directed, isn’t nearly as gratuitously torturous or inanely plotted as the later sequels, and it even has some moments of interesting character development. But it’s still a pretty skuzzy, second-rate piece of schlock, with poor acting and a lame twist ending. Wan and Whannell have worked hard since then to prove their skills at other types of horror; their 2007 film Dead Silence tried for a gothic feel that recalled the Hammer films of the 1950s and ’60s, although its silly plot about killer ventriloquist dummies fell flat. The pair’s new film, Insidious, takes another step away from the Saw template, functioning for its first half as a traditional haunted-house movie that relies on atmosphere over gore.
It’s a pretty basic set-up: Married couple Renai and Josh (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson) move into a new house with their three young children, and soon the strange noises and bizarre apparitions start. More disturbingly, their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falls into an inexplicable coma, and the haunting intensifies after that. Wan has honed his chops a lot over the years, and the slow build of Insidious’ first half is legitimately terrifying at times, using little more than quiet moments and quick flashes of disturbing images. It splits the difference between an old-fashioned ghost story and something new like Paranormal Activity (whose director, Oren Peli, is one of the producers), and Byrne and Wilson commit fully to the helplessness and fear of feeling attacked in your own home.
Then the explanation comes. As soon as Lin Shaye walks in as a psychic hired to rid the home of evil spirits, the movie takes a turn for the silly, and it never recovers. There are still some decent scares in the second half, but the more we learn about what’s happened, the harder it is to buy into. Eventually the movie devolves into a protracted battle for Dalton’s soul, and it closes with a lazy, obvious twist. Wan and Whannell have come a long way since Saw, but they still have a little further to go.