Renai and Josh Lambert (Byrne and Wilson), and their three kids have recently moved into a big new house. They’re not even unpacked yet when doors start moving and floorboards start squeaking. After a nerve-rattling opening sequence, what appears to be a super-creepy update on the familiar haunted house trope ends up becoming something, well, insidious.
What is unique about this nesting puzzle of a horror show is how often it reinvents itself. Just as we get used to it being a ghost story, their 9-year-old son Dalton (Simpkins) falls into an unexplainable coma. Each deals with the stress in different ways: he buries himself in work, she putters around the house and tends to her other children, including a baby just months old. She continues to see and hear spooky things, but just when Josh starts looking at her as if she’s gone cuckoo, that’s when things get crazy.
In a virtuoso sequence, Josh and Renai are besieged with doors slapping open and sudden ghostly appearances, made all the more jarring by a screaming baby and screeching door alarm. Eventually, they seek help in the form of a creepy woman (Shaye) who deals with paranormal activity and her two goofy ghostbuster-types (one of whom played by screenwriter Whanell). Wan and Whannell created the Saw series, which ushered in a wave of “torture porn” and ultra-grisly violence.
With Insidious, they went the other direction and designed a clever, visceral movie that features very little blood or actual violence, but boasts some of the most skin-peeling images in recent memory. To accomplish this rare feat, Wan recycles every trick in the old-school horror manual: jump-cues, in-camera sleight-of-hand, tricky editing, the absence of sound to create suspense, dry ice, scary Darth Maul face paint and the power of the human face as it reacts to something off screen.
Sure, the story has holes, and at times, things get goofy. However, the movie is smart enough to include things you should laugh at, knowing you’ll end up laughing at some of the rest too. Insidious is one nasty piece of work that wants nothing more than to scare the pants off you. It was also wildly successful: look at that box office total and consider that the budget for the movie was a scant $1.5 million.
— DENNIS WILLIS