There is a great deal of prowling motion in Insidious: a recurring sideways dolly outside an ominous house, a trench-coat-clad cacodemon pacing outside a second-story window. It's the restless motion of a movie stalking its prey — you, dear viewer.
A married couple, Josh and Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne), are introduced in bed. Josh's snoring is the first note in a musique concrète symphony to which old-house sounds are gradually added as the family is introduced: too skinny, delicate mom taking time off to "work on her music," harried teacher dad, two pre-adolescent sons, and a baby.
They've just moved into their new home, whose light-absorbent dark-oak interiors suit director James Wan's aversion to bright color. The boxes aren't yet unpacked when one of the boys, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), drops into a medically inexplicable coma. The beep of his EKG monitor joins the sound-design orchestra and is shortly followed by more incomprehensible noises: a salivating speaking-in-tongues coming over the baby monitor, the most teeth-grinding burglar alarm announcing a burst-open door with no one there. As symptoms of a full-blown haunting pile up, Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell smartly maintain a measured ratio of supernatural to everyday horror (a couple noticing together that they are no longer quite young, Dalton's nurse explaining the workings of a gastro-nasal feeding tube). Wilson and Byrne make a believable stress-fractured couple, even if their performances lack the harrowing psychological detail of the genre's best (like 1982's The Entity with Barbara Hershey, who appears in Insidious in the poorly established role of Josh's mother).
Insidious continues the partnership that Wan and Whannell began at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology's film school, which was vindicated by the success of their handmade, dingy, low-budget Saw (2004) — a surprise hit whose inventiveness has since been overshadowed by the diminishing returns of its farmed-out sequels. (Wan and Whannell's last collaboration was 2007's scary-ventriloquist-dummy Dead Silence, a folly of back-lot production design that evoked Cocteau, Dead of Night, and Seinfeld's Mr. Marbles episode.)
Their latest, a return to Poverty Row, contains more prickly, scalp-crawly moments than any other mainstream horror release in recent memory. It's filled with slow-approach buildups that give you plenty of time to anticipate something awful, even if that preparation doesn't do you a bit of good. Those awful somethings are often familiar. At times, watching Insidious is like floating through the chronologically arranged displays in a museum of haunted-movie history. You see Herk Harvey's blanched ghoul from Carnival of Souls, pass the scampering little It from Don't Look Now, and then enter an entire wing devoted to Poltergeist, with Dalton the imperiled child stuck between worlds, and an intervening medium who guides us through the rules of the supernatural game. Insidious's Zelda Rubinstein part is played by redoubtable character actress Lin Shaye, who explains that Dalton's astral-projecting soul is lost in an ether called "the Further"; until the boy's spirit is fetched home by Dad, the harassing bogeys can't be escaped by simply phoning a realtor.
Voyaging into the Further, Insidious pays self-homage to what is recognizably Wan and Whannell's own silly-surrealist sensibility. Everyone brings their own set of phobias to the movie theater. If age-curled formal family photos and Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" falsetto are among yours, you will experience no slackening in terror. But if you screamed — with laughter — when Saw's "Billy" puppet first wheeled out on his tricycle, this bric-a-brac of mothballed creepiness will not ruffle your psyche. We need visionaries — but also solid craftsmen who seem to enjoy their work. Insidious is the product of the latter. It doesn't build a better haunted house but, when on its game, reminds us of the genre's pleasures.