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NEW YORK — Saw creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell try their hands at another sort of scare in Insidious, a throwback to domestic ghost stories in which exorcists battle otherworldly forces to reunite parents and children, occasionally uniting parents with their insurance agents as well.
Successful to a point (though seemingly unaware of the chuckles it produces in between shrieks), the movie has strong prospects with genre audiences but won’t spawn a phenomenon resembling the filmmakers’ previous franchise.
If the Rube Goldberg-isms of the Saw films rely on merciless foreshadowing of agony, Insidious is the opposite: It’s a machine for yelling “Boo!” It does so over and over — with ghosts popping through walls, faces that jump-cut from calm to frenzied and a Darth Maul-like demon with a nasty habit of materializing just over victims’ shoulders.
A surprising number of these gotcha moments have the desired effect, and the picture’s first hour strings them along through a familiar tale: Young couple (Patrick Wilson andRose Byrne) moves to gorgeous-but-creepy old house; son Dalton falls into a coma after a mysterious encounter; creepy stuff starts to happen.
Less familiar, and off-putting, are the ways the characters and the film react to each new development. Wilson, displaying a strange lack of affect, responds to mysterious threats to his family by starting to stay late at work every night. The script doesn’t explain or really exploit this, nor does it find a reason for the movie’s jumpy chronology, in which scenes occasionally seem to begin during the day and end at night.
Confusion doesn’t ruin the ghost-story vibe, which stays just this side of camp: Wan’s camera loves to push slowly into vacant parts of the frame, and the sound department gives him every creaky door and ticking clock in the book.
Intentional comic relief comes in the form of a pair of low-rent ghostbusters working for a genuine psychic (Lin Shaye, who has a better handle on the picture than anyone else involved). But after some promising techno-mystical business from this team, the second hour spends too long astral-projecting through an ill-defined spiritual realm whose dangers and escape routes feel entirely arbitrary.
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