REVIEW: Insidious Goes for Old-Fashioned Scares But Raises Only the Odd Goosebump

Movieline Score: 6

Kids in the movies these days: When it's not their disappearance, illness, or untimely death tearing a family to pieces, it's the discovery that they've been dabbling in the dark arts or have succumbed to full-on demonic possession. Doesn't anyone just get left behind to defend the house from burglars anymore? Insidious, the new film from the wunderkind creators of the Saw franchise, borrows a move or two from both playbooks, and sets the whole thing in a creaky Tudor with an ominously cluttered attic.

A concerted effort to make a scary movie without spilling a drop of blood, Insidious is earnest to the point of suffocation about scaring you silly. Director James Wan has said that the supernatural classic Poltergeist, the first horror movie he ever watched, "scarred me for life." Horror lovers will recognize that as high praise, and yet the trail of splattered guts and shredded body parts that has defined horror for the last ten years can be traced back to Wan and his partner, writer and actor Leigh Whanell. Amends are in order, and the duo seem intent on making them: For their throwback thriller they teamed up with the producers behind 2007's old-fashioned goosebump-harvester, Paranormal Activity.

Insidious begins with a family dealing with adjustment issues after moving into a cavernous new home. Schoolteacher Josh (Patrick Wilson) is suddenly feeling his age; his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) is taking some time at home to look after their new baby and work on her songwriting; and one of their two boys, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), is having trouble sleeping in his new room. The house seems to be in flux as well, screeching and belching with boiler and floorboard complaints. When a box goes missing and books are mysteriously moved, Renai begins to suspect that the house is haunted. Then Dalton suffers what appears to be a hemorrhage after bumping his head during a scare in the attic and slips into a sub-coma sleep.

You can be assured that his doctor has never seen anything like it. The early scenes in Insidious are the best -- the direction is focused and deliberate and the sound cues relatively subdued, though Wan's switch to a color-leached look whenever the evil at large in the family's home is present is more distracting than creepy. Aesthetic overkill afflicts the latter portion of this overlong film more seriously.

The story's already tricky logic is crowded with horror tropes, and though Wan cannot start a scene without directing it to its own mini-climax, the effect of the constant, clanging reveals is less like being scared and more like having the Road Runner sneak up behind you and clap your head between two cymbals. Glancing attempts at character development highlight the film's central lack: A domestic fright-fest relies on the potency of its threat to the nuclear family, and the more nuclear the family, the more potent the threat. When the characters aren't convincing in their bond or recognizable in their responses, the viewer's switch is flipped to genre autopilot. Wan feels torn between telling a scary story and making a "scary" movie, and the viewer is ultimately stranded between the two impulses.

Though Insidious appears to be Byrne's film early on -- her restlessness and then her grief seem to parallel the house's discontent -- a turn of events pivots our attention onto Wilson's reticent, naysaying dad. Josh's mother (Barbara Hershey) brings in a paranormal specialist (Lin Shaye) and her two dorky assistants (Andrew Astor and Angus Sampson) to ghostbust the house. Her diagnosis of the situation requires Josh's central involvement, and our allowance of another artful metaphor -- this one involving astral projection, bad dreams, and the projection of our bad dreams that is horror's central appeal -- to elbow into the story.

Ti West's 2009 thriller House of the Devil provides a recent example of a horror paradox: The more exquisite the build-up, the tougher it is to pull off a compelling climax. Byrne, Wilson, and especially Shaye do their best to act their way out of the final act's pentagram-shaped corner, and Josh's REM quest to rescue his son from "The Further" has some effectively spooky moments. But the effects are too self-conscious and the story too disjointed for it to add up to more than a few arm hairs grudgingly -- if not reflexively -- standing at attention.