First, let's applaud Saw co-creator James Wan for trying to break away from the geek trick violence of his debut (he isn't responsible for the nastier, gorier and stupider Saw sequels) to deliver an old fashioned spook-house chiller. A huge improvement over Dead Silence, Wan's dreadful sophomore effort, Insidious delivers some genuine chills — in its first half. Using ominous creaks and thumps, dark figures outside the window, and malevolent whispers on the baby monitor, he does a good job of unsettling the audience, even if the movie's ridiculously overamped score telegraphs many of its scares. Gliding pans followed by jerky camera zooms maximize the supernatural jolts, and, like passengers on a creepy carnival ride, we wait for the frights to really cut loose. Unfortunately, it's Leigh Whannell's underdeveloped story that derails instead.
Handsome married couple Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) move into the Craftsman home of their dreams, with two young boys and a baby in tow. Still unpacking, boxes mysteriously go missing, books get knocked off of shelves, and strange noises start emanating from the attic. Then their eldest son Dalton slips into a inexplicable coma. Mom valiantly struggles to attend to her boy while eerie voices, slamming doors and ghostly shapes haunt the shadows. Dad chickens out, staying later and later at school to "grade papers." So far so good. The nerve-wracking pressure of being locked in a house caring for a comatose kid is ripe for all sorts of unnerving horror scenarios.
Too bad Whannell and Wan miss them all. Instead they retrofit Insidious into an uninspired Poltergeist plotmold. When a pair of goofy (and unamusing) ghostbusters and their medium boss (Lin Shaye) show up, Insidious takes a tragic turn toward stupid. Barbara Hershey joins in as Josh's mom, triggering the movie's tell-don't-show expository dump — a ridiculous backstory about inherited supernatural abilities and a dangerous netherworld called "the further." To make matters worse, Wan's otherworldly boogeyman ends up looking like Darth Maul's long lost cousin.
What makes the film so frustrating is watching spooky potential get squandered. Whannell's spin on haunted house tropes (lifted from Paranormal Activity) is sturdy enough, and when Wan keeps the spectral baddies implied (rather than revealed) the movie sends goose bumps down your spine. But the bombastic and nonsensical finale inevitably rolls in (along with its entirely predictable last-minute twist) — and whatever goodwill Insidious achieved in its opening 45 minutes disappears like an elaborate magic trick gone horribly awry.