By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Insidious is a tidy terror flick, and refreshing with its intention to make viewers gasp rather than gag. Surprising, too, since director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell made torture porn popular with the Saw series.
Here they go old school with a Poltergeist plot of supernatural child abduction, scary seances, frenzied violins and only smudges of fake blood. All beaten paths lead to the Further, a netherworld staged like a Halloween Horror Nights exhibit. Insidious leans heavily on easy methods to make audiences jump. All that's missing is a cat leaping from a closet. But it has fun with the cliches — and that becomes contagious.
Former St. Petersburg resident Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne play Josh and Renai Lambert, who haven't finished unpacking boxes in their new home before weird stuff begins. You know: doors creaking open on their own, visions of demons, strange voices on the baby monitor, all those extras the Realtor never mentioned. For a change, the Lamberts do the smart thing and move out.
New address, same problems, and by now oldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) has slipped into and out of an unexplainable coma. Then he just disappears. It's time to call in the ghost busters (Whannell, Angus Sampson) and a medium (Lin Shaye) who wears a super-sized gas mask while channeling voices from beyond, when she isn't filling us in on astral projection and the Further.
It's a misty, interesting place, with creepy children giggling, a hag cackling and an eerily restrained re-enactment of a deadly domestic disturbance having nothing to do with the plot. Tiny Tim's Tiptoe Through the Tulips hasn't sounded this chilling since it was first recorded. The peek-a-boo demon resembling Darth Maul is a nice touch. Insidious doesn't do anything different, but does it better than usual.
The actors are commended for keeping straight faces throughout, with Wilson and Shaye going beyond the call of authenticity. It isn't easy to wear that gas mask or feign a twitching trance without appearing foolish, but they don't. Wan and Whannell end their movie with one of those switcheroos portending a sequel, which is usually annoying, but like everything else in Insidious actually works.