A young family is forced to confront its demons — literally — in “Insidious,” a possession thriller less terrifying than fun. This latest shocker from the original “Saw” buzzers, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, flaunts an adequate measure of the duo’s trademark borderline-camp humor while channeling as if by Ouija board the unholy likes of “The Exorcist” and “Paranormal Activity” (whose director Oren Peli serves here as a producer). The Sony Pictures pickup probably won’t post “Paranormal” numbers, but, with its bevy of memorably demonic setpieces, it should scare up sizable biz with younger auds and auteur-minded horror aficionados.
As the chief engineers and residual beneficiaries of “Saw,” Wan and Whannell know plenty well enough to keep their creaking door open for “Insidious” sequels, which is to say the pic’s ending is, well, tentative as best.
Near the playfully cheesy start of what will likely come to be regarded as “Insidious I,” the Lambert clan — fledgling songwriter Mom (Rose Byrne), teacher Dad (Patrick Wilson) and three kids, including grade-schooler Dalton (Ty Simpkins) — are settling into a new suburban abode. Creaky floorboards, swaying doors, mysteriously “misplaced” boxes and a dripping faucet — everything including the kitchen sink, in other words — suggest that the new house may well be haunted.
Naively snooping in the creepy attic, little Dalton falls off a ladder and into a coma, or so the kid’s doctor maintains. In fact, might the boy’s incapacitating illness stem from something freakier? Dalton’s younger brother reports seeing the “comatose” kid walking around at night. Stressed-out Mom begins to see what she thinks is an intruder in the house. Dad starts staying late at work because he just can’t deal with whatever’s happening at home. And Wan gradually shifts “Insidious” from haunted-house chiller to demonic-possession pic, starting with the appearance of bloody handprints on poor Dalton’s bedsheets.
Like Wan’s “Saw,” whose comic tonal cues haven’t been adopted, alas, by its many sequels, “Insidious” takes a subtly silly approach to its mounting mayhem. As if the Satanic disturbances weren’t unsettling enough for her, Mom is visited by her outrageously intense mother-in-law (Barbara Hershey, offering a tongue-in-cheek mirror image of her controlling mommy from “Black Swan”). An unkempt pair of bickering ghostbusters (Angus Sampson and Whannell himself) also appears on the scene. The film’s final reels take place in what the family’s hired exorcist (a fab Lin Shaye) calls “the further,” whose resident evil is a hellish, red- and black-faced beast that bears absurd resemblance to Darth Maul from the “Phantom Menace” episode of “Star Wars.”
Arguably, “Insidious” could’ve used even more such Wan drollery, but, in visual terms, the film is exceptionally vivid by modern horror standards, with razor-sharp widescreen cinematography capturing every nuance of the fog-enshrouded sets. The likable Wilson and Byrne play it largely straight as a couple besieged by more child-rearing challenges than they ever imagined, and the swirling, string based score by Joseph Bishara is both patently ridiculous and rather effective. As good humor would have it, Bishara also serves the production by appearing as a “character” listed in the credits as “Lipstick-Face Demon.”