Review: “Insidious” is Spooky, But Familiar

There might be many ways to skin the proverbial cat, but there's really only one way to make a successful horror film: Challenge the audience with the unexpected. The trouble is, it's much, much harder to go that route than take the oft-frequented shortcut employed by many a would-be horror auteur: Crib your ideas from what you've already seen and give the audience precisely what they are anticipating.

It is, unfortunately, the latter method employed by the "Saw" boys, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, in their latest film. They take a different tack from the quasi-torture porn stylings of their previous smash-hit franchise, and instead attempt to build a domestic haunted house flick, channeling everything from "Poltergeist" to "Paranormal Activity" to "The Shining" in the process.

The story concerns a family who has just moved to a new house, a heavy-wood-and-door-knob affair with multiple bedrooms for the three children. The husband, Josh (Patrick Wilson), a schoolteacher, and wife, Renai (Rose Byrne), a would-be songwriter, believe their new house to be a "fresh start" (from what, exactly, is never made clear). Of course, shortly after they move in, strange happenings begin. Closed doors open, books are thrown about, and the sounds of people stomping around upstairs can be heard at all hours. To make matters worse, the oldest son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), after a scary encounter in the attic, falls into a mysterious coma from which doctors can neither revive him nor provide much of an explanation for his condition.

In desperation, the family moves to a new house, but the hauntings continue. Perplexed, they eventually employ a psychic (Lin Shaye) recommended by Renai's off-kilter mother (Barbara Hershey) to solve the mystery, which, as you can imagine, ultimately involves astral projection, alternate worlds and a secret from Josh's own childhood.

Whereas the first third of the flick sets a reasonably spooky atmosphere, this is the kind of horror film where the more you find out about what's happening, the far less terrifying it becomes. By the time Josh enters "the further" (psychic's term) in order to rescue his son, we've pretty much hit neighborhood-haunted-house standards of terror: women in bad make-up and fright wigs, kids in chains, creepy men smiling sardonically, and a red-faced dude sharpening his claws on a giant manicure wheel, everything enveloped by a rich and inexhaustible swirl of dry-ice fog to the musical accompaniment of struck piano strings. Expect the expected.

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